Gavin Fran­cis

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - edited by Phillip Glenn and El­iz­a­beth Holt

Stud­ies of Laugh­ter in In­ter­ac­tion

Stud­ies of Laugh­ter in In­ter­ac­tion edited by Phillip Glenn and El­iz­a­beth Holt.

Blooms­bury, 295 pp.,

£110.00; £28.99 (pa­per)

The physi­cian must have at his com­mand a cer­tain ready wit, as dour­ness is re­pul­sive both to the healthy and the sick. —Hip­pocrates

Medicine is a se­ri­ous busi­ness; when clin­i­cal con­ver­sa­tions are scru­ti­nized doc­tors can be seen to laugh less often than pa­tients. But they do laugh—lin­guis­tic anal­y­sis sug­gests that physi­cian laugh­ter per­forms im­por­tant in­ter­per­sonal and ther­a­peu­tic work. When pa­tients laugh, it’s to make a show of align­ment or af­fil­i­a­tion with the doc­tor, sig­nal a prob­lem, or demon­strate su­pe­ri­or­ity to their com­plaint. Ana­tole Bro­yard, in a 1990 es­say writ­ten while he was be­ing treated for prostate can­cer (“Good Books about Be­ing Sick”), wrote of one cheer­ful doc­tor:

Bernie Siegel, a doc­tor who says “call me Bernie,” is a sort of Don­ald Trump of crit­i­cal ill­ness. He sounds like a pro­pri­etor or land­lord of mor­tal­ity . . . . Yet, for bet­ter or worse, he in­tro­duces an el­e­ment of ca­ma­raderie into the med­i­cal process.

For Bro­yard, ca­ma­raderie can be over­done: Bernie re­minds him of a doc­tor he once knew who wore such out­landish-look­ing suits that “I couldn’t help won­der­ing about his med­i­cal judg­ment.” I work in fam­ily and emer­gency medicine; this year I con­ducted an anony­mous sur­vey ask­ing all of my pri­mary care pa­tients, over the course of a week, what they thought of my med­i­cal care. One of the re­sponses read, “Dr. Fran­cis can be good for a laugh”—I’m still puz­zling over what that pa­tient meant.

In Stud­ies of Laugh­ter in In­ter­ac­tion the lin­guists Phillip Glenn and El­iz­a­beth Holt have brought to­gether twelve schol­arly ar­ti­cles, each il­lu­mi­nat­ing an as­pect of the work laugh­ter ac­com­plishes across a range of hu­man in­ter­ac­tions. Two of its chap­ters are re­lated to laugh­ter in the clin­i­cal con­sul­ta­tion. Oth­ers ex­plore a com­pre­hen­sive range of sit­u­a­tions: be­tween teach­ers and stu­dents in class, jok­ing be­tween friends, by job in­ter­vie­wees, be­tween a mother and her autis­tic son, high-stakes po­lit­i­cal in­ter­views, and so on.

Laugh­ter is per­va­sive in hu­man life, across cul­tures. There is more va­ri­ety in the laughs gen­er­ated by one in­di­vid­ual in dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions than there is be­tween sep­a­rate in­di­vid­u­als in sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions. It has

phys­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal, spir­i­tual, and re­la­tional ben­e­fits. It is the cost-free medicine that can re­lease en­dor­phins help­ing us feel good, ex­er­cise our mus­cles and breath­ing like yoga, help us lighten moods and cope with prob­lems more read­ily, and strengthen so­cial bonds.

This book could be read as a man­ual for those who find com­plex non­ver­bal

com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­wil­der­ing, il­lu­mi­nat­ing the star­tling com­plex­ity of ev­ery­day so­cial in­ter­ac­tions.

The dis­tinc­tion be­tween laugh­ing with and be­ing laughed at is an an­cient one: of around thirty ref­er­ences in the Bi­ble to laugh­ter, most in­volve de­ri­sion or scorn and only a hand­ful re­fer to laugh­ter that is in any way con­nected to joy (do a dig­i­tal search for “laugh” in the Bi­ble, and you’ll find it far more often as part of “slaugh­ter”). Aris­to­tle thought there was virtue in be­ing quick to laugh: his eu­trapelia is some­times trans­lated as “wit­ti­ness,” but a lit­eral trans­la­tion would be “able to turn well,” the skill of twist­ing with agility through the shift­ing de­mands of dy­namic so­cial in­ter­ac­tion. In the seven­teenth cen­tury, Thomas Hobbes de­scribed laugh­ter as a “pas­sion” re­lated solely to scorn, “noth­ing else but sud­den glory aris­ing from a sud­den con­cep­tion of some em­i­nency in our­selves, by com­par­i­son with the in­fir­mity of oth­ers.” In the later eigh­teenth and into the nine­teenth cen­tury, Hobbes’s the­ory of su­pe­ri­or­ity was over­taken by one in which laugh­ter was be­lieved to dis­charge pent-up en­er­gies—an idea nour­ished by old hu­moral the­o­ries of the body (we still speak of some­one as hav­ing “good hu­mor”). If nerves and ar­ter­ies were sim­ply hy­draulic chan­nels for flu­ids, then those chan­nels might come un­der pres­sure that would need to be “dis­charged.” Freud was among the fa­mous pro­po­nents of this idea, and to ex­plain it he re­peated a joke by Mark Twain. Twain’s brother (the joke goes) was work­ing on a rail­road when dy­na­mite blew too early—he was thrown

high in the air and crash-landed some way off. When the un­for­tu­nate man strug­gled back to the rail­road, his pay was docked, as he’d been “ab­sent from his place of em­ploy­ment.” Ac­cord­ing to Freud the en­ergy of pity that we’ve built up through the story is “dis­charged” into laugh­ter by the lu­di­crous and un­fair treat­ment of Twain’s brother.

Charles Dar­win noted in The Ex­pres­sion of Emo­tions in Man and An­i­mals that most the­o­ries of laugh­ter ig­nore the fact that chil­dren laugh with en­thu­si­asm long be­fore they have the in­tel­lec­tual so­phis­ti­ca­tion to ap­pre­ci­ate hi­er­ar­chies of mean­ing, or even pity. He con­sid­ered laugh­ter to be a pow­er­ful so­cial sig­nal of high spir­its, vis­i­ble in dif­fer­ent forms across the an­i­mal king­dom. “Laugh­ter seems pri­mar­ily to be the ex­pres­sion of mere joy or hap­pi­ness,” he wrote. “We clearly see this in chil­dren at play, who are al­most in­ces­santly laugh­ing.” Dar­win fol­lowed up his ob­ser­va­tion with a quo­ta­tion from Homer, who de­scribed the laugh­ter of the gods as “the ex­u­ber­ance of their ce­les­tial joy af­ter their daily ban­quet.”

In 1984 the lin­guist Gail Jef­fer­son em­pha­sized the dis­tinc­tion be­tween laugh­ter that floods out at the ap­praisal of some­thing as funny or joy­ful, and laugh­ter put in be­tween words in order to ac­com­plish in­ter­ac­tional work.* Glenn and Holt think the dis­tinc­tion is less clear-cut than Jef­fer­son sug­gested: they point out that the laugh­ter we put *See Hu­mor in In­ter­ac­tion, edited by Neal R. Nor­rick and Delia Chiaro (Am­s­ter­dam: John Ben­jamins, 2009). into con­ver­sa­tion can be as au­then­tic as that which floods out, and is often a re­sponse to hu­mor­ous cues (known to lin­guists as “ref­er­ents” and “laugh­ables”). Laugh­ter in con­ver­sa­tion sig­nals some­thing—often some­thing awk­ward or trou­ble­some—but at the same time it seeks in sub­tle or covert ways to re­solve that prob­lem.

Hobbes may have been onto some­thing: laugh­ter is un­doubt­edly a sig­ni­fier of hi­er­ar­chies. Glenn and Holt note that the phe­nom­e­non of the un­smil­ing doc­tor is wide­spread among other pro­fes­sional groups as well, in part be­cause solem­nity is con­sid­ered part of the pro­fes­sional man­ner, but also be­cause of the hu­man ten­dency to per­ceive hi­er­ar­chies in ev­ery in­ter­ac­tion and mod­u­late be­hav­ior ac­cord­ingly. Peo­ple who imag­ine them­selves to be of lower sta­tus than the pro­fes­sion­als with whom they are in­ter­act­ing will tend to laugh more, as if seek­ing align­ment and af­fil­i­a­tion with some­one higher up a chain of pres­tige.

One of the main themes of the book, the sub­ject of one of its four parts but rel­e­vant to them all, is how laugh­ter me­di­ates and ex­presses tem­po­rary iden­ti­ties. For the pur­poses of Glenn and Holt, per­sonal iden­ti­ties like gen­der, eth­nic­ity, and na­tion­al­ity are of less in­ter­est than briefly as­sumed, more pli­able iden­ti­ties such as “com­plaint­maker,” “trou­bles-teller,” or even “doc­tor” and “pa­tient.” The way we use laugh­ter de­pends upon which of those iden­ti­ties we oc­cupy at any par­tic­u­lar mo­ment. In the case of “com­plaint­maker” they ob­serve that com­plain­ing is never one-sided, it’s al­ways a ne­go­ti­a­tion, and that care­fully cho­sen laugh­ter may have a cru­cial part in ad­vanc­ing a com­plaint to­ward a de­sired out­come. Many of the chap­ters ex­plore the ways in which laugh­ter as­sists the ex­pres­sion of such tem­po­rary iden­ti­ties. To ex­am­ine the func­tion of laugh­ter in the clin­i­cal con­sul­ta­tion, Glenn and Holt have in­cluded video analy­ses of a cou­ple of med­i­cal sit­u­a­tions. One looks at the laugh­ter and smiles em­ployed be­tween a pa­tient, a doc­tor, and a nurse to nav­i­gate the in­ter­per­sonal ten­sions that arise dur­ing a visit to a gyne­col­ogy clinic in Italy. The au­thors, Mar­ilena Fati­gante and Franca Or­letti of Rome, ob­serve that in med­i­cal con­sul­ta­tions pa­tients laugh at del­i­cate, dif­fi­cult mo­ments in the clin­i­cal in­ter­ac­tion. Un­like laugh­ter be­tween friends, a laugh from a pa­tient doesn’t rep­re­sent an in­vi­ta­tion to shared laugh­ter with the doc­tor. This may be one of the rea­sons doc­tors laugh in­fre­quently: when they hear laugh­ter from a pa­tient it is al­most in­vari­ably flag­ging a prob­lem. In Fati­gante and Or­letti’s cho­sen con­sul­ta­tion the pa­tient smiles as she in­di­cates, early in the con­sul­ta­tion, that she ap­pears to have been in­cor­rectly coded on her record as hav­ing had two abor­tions. Her part­ner had no­ticed, and had be­come an­gry with her as if she was keep­ing some­thing from him.

“Ques­tion­ing the ex­per­tise and author­ity of the doc­tor,” Fati­gante and Or­letti write, “is a del­i­cate task for the pa­tients, who, on their part, can claim ac­cu­racy of knowl­edge when the

ob­jects of med­i­cal de­scrip­tion are part of their own ex­pe­ri­ence.” Even to ar­tic­u­late the prob­lem threat­ens “dis­af­fil­i­a­tion” with the doc­tor and the nurse, and the pa­tient’s smiles and laugh­ter seek to sus­tain a pos­i­tive con­nec­tion, while is­su­ing crit­i­cism. The cod­ing of her record “points to a pos­si­ble med­i­cal mis­do­ing, [but] her fa­cial dis­plays con­vey an im­pres­sion of a non­hos­tile stance.” In fact, both she and her part­ner had mis­un­der­stood the record, and the fig­ure “2” re­lated to the num­ber of chil­dren she has had, rather than the num­ber of abor­tions.

Over the sub­se­quent cou­ple of min­utes of the con­sul­ta­tion, which re­quire four pages of tex­tual anal­y­sis, Fati­gante and Or­letti break down the myr­iad sub­tleties of the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween doc­tor, pa­tient, and nurse, all while the three women are en­gaged in the prac­ti­cal re­quire­ments of the gy­ne­co­log­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion. The doc­tor

in­structs her to con­front her part­ner and at­tribute to him re­spon­si­bil­ity for the mis­un­der­stand­ing. The pa­tient joins in laugh­ing at the end of the doc­tor’s turn, once the prob­lem­atic qual­ity of the nar­ra­tive has been con­verted into a cri­tique to­ward the third ab­sent party, who is cast (and some­how “scolded”) as some­one who did not un­der­stand.

At one point the doc­tor and nurse laugh to­gether, then hur­riedly seek to align them­selves with the pa­tient, so that she in no way feels that she is be­ing laughed “at.” Body lan­guage fig­ures in the ways we mit­i­gate and em­pha­size the mean­ing of our words—Fati­gante and Or­letti fo­cus on how the doc­tor uses her “pos­tural con­fig­u­ra­tion” to demon­strate si­mul­ta­ne­ous en­gage­ment with her au­di­ence at dif­fer­ent lev­els of in­ter­ac­tion. Her use of “body torque” sig­nals her aware­ness that both pa­tient and nurse have claims on her at­ten­tion, and si­mul­ta­ne­ously con­veys the se­quence in which she will re­spond. Through­out the gy­ne­co­log­i­cal visit laugh­ter marked trou­ble, but could be both af­fil­ia­tive (be­tween the three women present) or dis­af­fil­ia­tive (laugh­ing at the ab­sent part­ner for his ex­ag­ger­ated re­ac­tion to a med­i­cal cod­ing mis­un­der­stand­ing). Though pa­tients laugh more often than doc­tors, Fati­gante and Or­letti also showed how the pa­tient muted her laugh­ter, for fear that it im­plied an un­war­ranted level of in­ti­macy with the doc­tor and nurse. Anna Clau­dia Ticca of the Uni­ver­sity of Lyon an­a­lyzes a dif­fer­ent sort of med­i­cal in­ter­ac­tion. Across a series of field trips to Mex­ico she vide­o­recorded ninety med­i­cal con­sul­ta­tions, ex­plor­ing the laughs ut­tered by indige­nous Mexican vil­lagers who speak only Yu­catec Maya when sub­jected to crit­i­cism by a Span­ish-speak­ing doc­tor of their par­ent­ing skills. The con­sul­ta­tions are me­di­ated through an in­ter­preter. The vil­lagers be­lieve that ill chil­dren should not be al­lowed to get wet, and the doc­tor ex­presses dis­gust that the child is un­washed: “Why is your baby so dirty?” she de­mands. “Don’t you bathe him?” The mother laughs, shakes her head, and keeps on laugh­ing through her re­sponse: “He has a cough.” Later in the con­ver­sa­tion the doc­tor threat­ens the mother: “Your child is badly cared-for—if she con­tin­ues [to be dirty] I won’t see her again.” Again the mother sim­ply laughs, adding to the doc­tor’s be­wil­der­ment. She ques­tions the skill of the in­ter­preter: “It makes you laugh or you didn’t un­der­stand me.”

Ticca points out that laugh­ing un­der such a bar­rage of crit­i­cism is an ef­fec­tive in­ter­ac­tional strat­egy—the mother’s laugh­ter “mark[s] an in­ter­ac­tional prob­lem, dis­play­ing re­sis­tance, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously con­tin­u­ing the in­ter­ac­tion.” She wants the doc­tor to get on with as­sess­ing her sick baby, but in terms of her sta­tus rel­a­tive to the doc­tor, the only way she can re­sist the ques­tions about hy­giene is to mark the trou­ble and wait. Laugh­ter is often used in this way, Ticca ob­serves, “when doc­tors call on pa­tients to change or ac­count for their ev­ery­day prac­tices, which in­clude nurs­ing prac­tices, child care, and eat­ing and cook­ing habits.” I can’t think of an ex­am­ple when I’ve ever ha­rangued a pa­tient the way Ticca’s doc­tor does. But at least once a day in clinic, when I raise the con­nec­tion be­tween my pa­tients’ poor health and their life­style choices (bad diet, lack of ex­er­cise, smok­ing, drug-tak­ing), the awk­ward­ness of the mo­ment will be bro­ken by a laugh. Ticca quotes Chris­tian Heath’s work on em­bar­rass­ment in hu­man in­ter­ac­tion, in par­tic­u­lar his sug­ges­tion that laugh­ter—just as much as shifts in gaze, ges­ture, and body move­ment—can be a re­sponse to shame. The laugh­ter of the pa­tients Ticca de­scribes is anal­o­gous in some ways to the “ner­vous laugh­ter” by job ap­pli­cants dur­ing in­ter­views. Phillip Glenn’s “In­ter­vie­wees Vol­un­teered Laugh­ter in Em­ploy­ment In­ter­views” re­veals the in­tri­ca­cies of ner­vous laugh­ter and makes a plea for it not to be dis­missed as some­thing triv­ial, but rec­og­nized as a po­ten­tially so­phis­ti­cated and sen­si­tive re­sponse to stress. In­ter­views de­mand that each in­ter­vie­wee be im­mod­est about their achieve­ments but at the same time ex­press ap­pro­pri­ate hu­mil­ity. In an in­tensely com­pet­i­tive sit­u­a­tion, they nonethe­less have to strive to con­vey ease and con­fi­dence.

Glenn brings in Freud’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of laugh­ter as a cathar­tic re­sponse to the emo­tional ten­sion this in­ter­ac­tion pro­duces. But laugh­ing too much is high-risk: he also refers to Stan­ley Mil­gram’s in­fa­mous Yale stud­ies in obe­di­ence, in which sub­jects were in­structed by author­ity fig­ures to in­flict pain on oth­ers. Mil­gram’s sub­jects often laughed in­ap­pro­pri­ately as they heard the screams of their vic­tims, and ac­cord­ing to Glenn, job ap­pli­cants who are less skill­ful at gaug­ing when to laugh (whose laugh­ter is deemed “in­ap­pro­pri­ate” by in­ter­view­ers) are less likely to be suc­cess­ful. When adept in­ter­vie­wees say some­thing boast­ful or self-dep­re­cat­ing, they laugh at the end of their turn to show they’re aware of how con­ceited or meek they might sound. When they feel they’ve over­sold their abil­i­ties, they laugh to roll their claims back:

Thus the term “ner­vous laugh­ter” may be to some ex­tent a layper­son’s gloss of ex­actly the kinds of laughs de­scribed [in an in­ter­view set­ting]: laughs that work on one’s own ac­tions in del­i­cate en­vi­ron­ments and that are un­likely to be re­cip­ro­cated. Politi­cians in broad­cast in­ter­views are in an anal­o­gous sit­u­a­tion to job in­ter­vie­wees, but the risks and power dy­nam­ics are very much greater, and laugh­ter per­forms a dif­fer­ent func­tion. In 2009 Sen­a­tor Charles Schumer was in­ter­viewed on MSNBC about the elec­toral prospects of Sarah Palin. The in­ter­viewer, David Gre­gory, asked, “Is Sarah Palin the fu­ture of the Repub­li­can Party?” Schumer laughed, and con­tin­ued laugh­ing all the way through his re­sponse, even­tu­ally man­ag­ing to say, “I guess I shouldn’t judge and let them fight among them­selves.” In lex­i­cal terms his re­sponse was eva­sive, but his laugh was elo­quent: it dele­git­imized the ques­tion, and en­abled him to take the moral high ground, im­ply­ing that he chose to dis­qual­ify him­self from com­ment. His laugh­ter alone in­di­cated that his re­sponse to the ques­tion, if he had given one, would have been neg­a­tive.

This was a tele­vi­sion in­ter­view in which a politi­cian was ques­tioned about a third, ab­sent party; when the politi­cian present is the sub­ject of crit­i­cal ques­tion­ing, laugh­ter plays a dif­fer­ent part. When Ru­dolph Gi­u­liani was in­ter­viewed on Meet the Press in De­cem­ber 2007 he was asked about his law firm’s con­nec­tions with Venezuela and North Korea. Speech is con­ven­tion­ally taken in turns—speak­ing over an in­ter­viewer risks ap­pear­ing rude— but there’s no such re­stric­tion on laugh­ter. Gi­u­liani be­gan laugh­ing even as Tim Russert first men­tioned Venezuela, and laughed through­out the sub­se­quent ac­cu­sa­tions, as well as all the way through his own re­sponse (“Tim, that’s a stretch”). He laughed so much that the clip on YouTube has the mock­ing ti­tle “Rudy Gig­gliani.”

Tanya Ro­ma­niuk, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor in the De­part­ment of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at Port­land State Uni­ver­sity in Ore­gon, wrote the chap­ter on po­lit­i­cal in­ter­views. She shows why politi­cians laugh on TV: to seek align­ment with in­ter­view­ers and with view­ers, make a show of good hu­mor, and sug­gest that any crit­i­cisms be­ing voiced are laugh­able. But she also shows how laugh­ter in a po­lit­i­cal in­ter­view can be a risky strat­egy, seem­ingly less tol­er­ated among women than among men. In 2007 Joan Ven­nochi of The Bos­ton Globe wrote of Hil­lary Clin­ton: “HENS CACKLE. So do witches. And, so does the front-run­ner in the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial con­test.”

In a 1989 ar­ti­cle on the so­cial sig­nif­i­cance of laugh­ter, Viveka Adel­swärd wrote, “We use laugh­ter to sig­nal that we are aware of a ten­sion be­tween what we say, how this could be in­ter­preted by oth­ers and what we mean.” Peo­ple with autis­tic spec­trum disor­ders are often thought to have di­min­ished ca­pac­ity for rec­og­niz­ing con­flict­ing lev­els of in­ter­pre­ta­tion, as a re­sult of what Tim­o­thy Auburn and Chris­tanne Pol­lock call a “deficit in so­cial aware­ness.” In their chap­ter “Laugh­ter and Com­pe­tence,” Auburn and Pol­lock an­a­lyze an in­ter­ac­tion be­tween Al­fie, a non­ver­bal boy with autism, and his mother. They quote re­search led by the British psy­chol­o­gist Va­sudeva Reddy that chil­dren with autism laugh just as often, and in the same way, as chil­dren with Down syn­drome, though chil­dren with autism are less likely to heed the laugh­ter of oth­ers.

Auburn and Pol­lock de­scribe Al­fie teas­ing his mother, invit­ing laugh­ter

and pro­ject­ing af­fil­i­a­tion as he at­tempts to per­suade her to give him an ex­tra cookie. Cit­ing ear­lier re­search pub­lished by Reddy in 1991, Auburn and Pol­lock as­sert that this teas­ing in­volves “the rapid al­ter­na­tion of metasig­nals, which cre­ate then re­move doubt”—some­thing Al­fie ac­com­plishes with ease. Laugh­ter is a cul­tural mod­i­fier for those with autism as much as it is for any­one “neu­rotyp­i­cal”: “Al­fie dis­plays a clear ori­en­ta­tion to shar­ing and gain­ing af­fil­i­a­tion in his at­tempts to ini­ti­ate laugh­able mo­ments,” they con­clude, “coun­ter­ing a view that laugh­ter in those with autism is sim­ply the out­ward man­i­fes­ta­tion of an in­ner state.”

The place of laugh­ter in com­plex so­cial in­ter­ac­tion is ex­plored through a hand­ful of other sit­u­a­tions: how laugh­ter sig­nals readi­ness to take a conversational turn (since laugh­ter, un­like speech, is some­thing ev­ery­one in a group can do to­gether at once); how is­su­ing a “last laugh” can mod­u­late the ef­fect as well as the mean­ing of any conversational con­tri­bu­tion; how laugh­ter among a group of English as a Sec­ond Lan­guage stu­dents can act as a chal­lenge and a re­source for a tu­tor; how laugh­ter can give nu­ance to the del­i­cate ne­go­ti­a­tion im­mi­grants per­form when ques­tioned about their na­tional iden­tity.

The stated aim of Stud­ies of Laugh­ter in In­ter­ac­tion is to present a com­pre­hen­sive over­view of how laugh­ter op­er­ates in so­cial in­ter­ac­tions, but it’s dif­fi­cult to see how such a study could ever be com­pre­hen­sive. The book re­peat­edly makes the point that hu­man so­cial in­ter­ac­tions are im­mea­sur­ably com­plex, that laugh­ter is as plu­ral, as richly var­ie­gated as hu­man in­ter­ac­tion it­self. It goes a long way to­ward ex­plain­ing how we make use of many dif­fer­ent kinds of laughs: in­vi­ta­tions to share a laugh, in­vited laughs, vol­un­teered laughs, sec­ond laughs; equiv­o­cal laughs, “free-stand­ing” or “em­bed­ded”; “hearty” and “pro­longed,” or “small,

scarcely-no­ticed par­ti­cles.” One of the book’s tri­umphs is to show just how am­bigu­ous laugh­ter can be—a vo­cal sig­nal we cast out into a del­i­cate in­ter­ac­tion, which could po­ten­tially be per­ceived as ei­ther friendly and en­cour­ag­ing (“af­fil­ia­tive”) or hos­tile and dis­ap­prov­ing (“non-af­fil­ia­tive”) in order to more clearly di­vine the na­ture of a par­tic­u­lar ex­change and plan an ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse. Though laugh­ter has tra­di­tion­ally been thought of as a re­sponse to hu­mor, Glenn and Holt make the point that its work is often an­tic­i­pa­tory—it mod­u­lates the di­rec­tion of speech yet to come.

When I was judged by a pa­tient as “good for a laugh,” I be­came anx­ious that per­haps I wasn’t tak­ing my job se­ri­ously enough. But if I’m lucky, that pa­tient was re­fer­ring to eu­trapelia, the virtue of be­ing “able to turn well” so val­ued by Aris­to­tle and, it ap­pears, by Glenn and Holt. Laugh­ter is end­lessly ver­sa­tile, they write, “mov­ing be­tween po­lar­i­ties of se­ri­ous and not se­ri­ous, hos­tile and af­fil­ia­tive, self- and other-ref­er­en­tial.” As an ac­tiv­ity it’s cen­tral to the ne­go­ti­a­tions that oc­cur mo­ment to mo­ment when­ever hu­man be­ings com­mu­ni­cate with other hu­man be­ings:

Broadly speak­ing, laugh­ter shows up time and time again in two kinds of en­vi­ron­ments: cel­e­bra­tions and trou­ble. In mo­ments of cel­e­bra­tion, it al­lows peo­ple to laugh to­gether, ap­pre­ci­ate, af­fil­i­ate, and even claim a kind of in­ti­macy. In mo­ments of trou­ble, it pro­vides a re­source for align­ing, mod­i­fy­ing ac­tions, and mit­i­gat­ing mean­ings.

Laugh­ter is the lu­bri­cant that makes lan­guage slip­pery, brings mal­leabil­ity to mean­ing, ex­presses in­ner emo­tion, and at the same time acts as a de­vice that can be de­ployed strate­gi­cally. We are only be­gin­ning to un­der­stand how vo­cal­ized ag­i­ta­tion of breath­ing, so often thought of as solely re­ac­tive to hu­mor, is in truth a uni­ver­sal lan­guage, ca­pa­ble of fine in­ter­ac­tional work.

Rem­brandt: Self-Por­trait in a Cap: Laugh­ing, 1630

Yue Min­jun: The Sun, 2000

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