Is there a language of laughter?
Laughter is a human universal – something all people do in every corner of the globe, no matter their culture
There’s evidence that laughter can act as a social glue, encouraging shared feelings of closeness.
But of course, that doesn’t mean that we all laugh the same amount, at the same things or in the same situations. In fact, psychologists in Canada have proposed a theory that says there are four main styles of humour, and that individuals and cultures vary in how much they tend to practise and laugh at these different kinds of jokes. It’s almost as if we speak different laughter languages, depending on the mix of our own personalities and cultural background.
The four humour styles are: affiliative (laughing with other people and amusing them); self-enhancing (managing to take a light-hearted approach to difficult circumstances or setbacks); self-defeating (making fun of oneself for other people’s amusement, to manipulate or hide one’s true feelings); and aggressive (ridiculing or teasing other people).
In terms of links with personality, there’s evidence that friendly, cheerful extroverts tend to go for self-enhancing and affiliative humour; in contrast, people who are moodier and less agreeable tend to practise more aggressive and self-defeating humour.
When it comes to cultural differences, studies show that people from more collectivist cultures, such as China, are less likely to use aggressive humour and more likely to use affiliative humour, compared to people from more individualistic cultures, such as the US and Canada. Other research has found that people from Eastern cultures are less likely to use humour as a coping strategy, and generally view a sense of humour as a less important attribute compared with how it’s seen in the West.
- Why do jokes make us laugh?
- Why does laughing make you feel better?
- What’s the point of laughter?
- Why do people laugh when they’re nervous?
Every week on BBC World Service, CrowdScience answers listeners’ questions on life, Earth and the Universe. Tune in every Friday evening on BBC World Service, or catch up online at bbcworldservice.com/crowdscience
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Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.
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