GREAT UNKOWNS :

Can you tell some­one’s na­tion­al­ity by how t hey laugh?

Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - Contents -

OU’RE PROB­A­BLY ABLE to as­cer­tain some­one’s na­tion­al­ity a bit bet­ter by what they laugh at than by the way they laugh. Nor­we­gians laugh at Swedes. Swedes laugh at Nor­we­gians. The French laugh at Jerry Lewis. And Amer­i­cans have learnt to laugh at ev­ery­thing, be­cause it’s the only way they’re go­ing to get out of bed these days.

Disa Sauter, a pro­fes­sor of so­cial psy­chol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Am­s­ter­dam, de­vised a quiz in which 800 sub­jects lis­tened to laughs from six dif­fer­ent cul­tural back­grounds – Dutch, French, English, Amer­i­can, Ja­panese, and a Namib­ian group called the Himba – and tried to match the chortling to its coun­try of ori­gin. ‘We found that peo­ple are ter­ri­ble at this,’ says Sauter. In a much nar­rower test, Dutch sub­jects were un­able to iden­tify the laughs of their coun­try­men.

Laugh­ter re­search is a more ro­bust field than one might think. As we all know, but have prob­a­bly not spent much time con­sid­er­ing, laugh­ter comes in two forms: spon­ta­neous (real laugh­ter, caused by funny jokes or ruth­less tick­ling) and vo­li­tional (a ‘char­ity chuckle,’ mus­tered for a dorky dad or preen­ing boss). Gen­uine laugh­ter em­anates from the emo­tional vo­cal sys­tem, which is com­mon to all mam­mals. Vo­li­tional laugh­ter, con­versely, comes from the re­gion of the brain that han­dles speech.

While dads and bosses may pre­tend to be un­able to dis­tin­guish be­tween the two, their brains do ac­tu­ally detect the dif­fer­ence. Nadine La­van, a neu­ro­science re­searcher at Royal Hol­loway, Univer­sity of Lon­don, worked on a study that con­trasted the two types of laugh­ter, and found that each ac­ti­vated a dif­fer­ent neu­ral net­work. ‘Even though the sub­jects aren’t aware that this is vo­li­tional laugh­ter they’re lis­ten­ing to, their brain still goes, “Oh, that sounds kind of strange. What’s go­ing on here?”’ says La­van.

Given that vo­li­tional laugh­ter is akin to speech, and per­haps a bit more sub­ject to cul­tural in­flu­ence, might it be eas­ier to detect the na­tional ori­gin of fake mirth? ‘If any­thing, peo­ple would ex­pect to do bet­ter with vo­li­tional laugh­ter,’ Sauter says, ‘ be­cause that’s in­flu­enced more by cul­tural and so­cial fac­tors.’ Still, she’s not op­ti­mistic. ‘I’d be very sur­prised if peo­ple are any good at this.’

All the above sug­gests that you’d do bet­ter to look at the pre­cip­i­tat­ing gag than the re­sult­ing guf­faw. Here’s an im­promptu quiz: Guess the na­tion­al­ity of the per­son who finds this joke funny.

What do you get when you ask for floun­der in a Nor­we­gian fish store? A cod and a ham­mer. Now how about this one? A cus­tomer en­ters a store and asks, ‘Kan jag få två smörgåsar?’ (May I have two sand­wiches?) The store clerk then asks, ‘Are you Swedish?’ The cus­tomer re­sponds, ‘Er det fordi jag sa ‘smörgåsar’ de skjøn­nte at jag var svensk?’ (Is it be­cause I said ‘smörgåsar,’ the Swedish word for sand­wiches, that you knew I was a Swede?) ‘No,’ replies the clerk. ‘It’s be­cause you’re in a hard­ware store.’

We rest our case.

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