Times Colonist

For joke-tellers, friends, relatives are toughest crowd

It proves that you can be rudest to the people you love, linguist who studies humour says


VANCOUVER — When it comes to punishing bad comedians, we prefer to hurt the ones we love.

Linguist Nancy Bell’s field research on impolite responses to failed humour reveals that the most savage responses to lousy jokes are unleashed on intimates.

Bell, a professor at Washington State University, will deliver her presentati­on on responses to failed humour at the Congress of the Humanities and the Social Sciences today. Hundreds of lectures and academic papers will be delivered to more than 9,000 academics this week at the congress, hosted by the University of British Columbia.

To elicit responses, Bell armed a group of students with a particular­ly lame joke, which they were to insert into conversati­ons with people and record their responses. The joke: What did the big (inanimate object) say to the little (inanimate object)?

Nothing. (Inanimate objects) can’t talk.

The students were to insert an object, such as spoon or shoe or whatever was at hand, to customize the joke.

Almost half of the responses were classed as offensive and impolite up to and including a nasty glare or a punch on the arm. No kidding. And the closer the relationsh­ip, the harsher the words.

A failed joke is often embarrassi­ng for the joke-teller, so why do we feel compelled to add insult to injury? Punishment must have a purpose, Bell opined.

First, jokes often derail the natural flow of conversati­on.

“Ordinarily, we tolerate that disruption because the payoff is entertaini­ng,” Bell explained. “When you pause for a joke and there is no payoff, it’s just disruptive and you are upset.”

Lousy jokes also violate the social contract you share with other people. A bad joke, particular­ly a “canned” or stock joke that is not created spontaneou­sly, insults the listener by suggesting that he might actually find it funny. When it isn’t funny, the response is often nasty, in effect saying, “Do not do that again.”

Relations between intimates, such as spouses or siblings, turn out to be different that those we share with acquaintan­ces, where the relationsh­ip is not well-defined, or an employer, who could fire you.

“Well, your sister can’t fire you,” Bell explained. “So we can be rudest to the people we love.

“With intimates, you have a longterm investment, so your mean response says, ‘Guess what, I don’t want to spend the next 10 years hearing those kind of jokes,’” she said.

Bell is one a small cohort of linguists who have turned their attention to humour and its functions in human interactio­ns.

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