I’ve come to believe that laughter is best understood as a vocal affirmation of mutual vulnerability. Having discussed “vulnerability” at some length in prior posts, I’d like to relate what I mean by “mutual” and how it helps explain laughter’s ability to generate both joy and sorrow in those who hear it.
The Mutual Half of Mutual Vulnerability
In our attempt to understand laughter’s true purpose, we should think of mutual as a synonym for “held in common” or “shared.” Whenever some individual’s or group’s vulnerability is highlighted, that is, bought to our attention, we perceive a change in their status level relative to that of others. Laughter, I would argue, evolved as means of reminding others that we share some degree of vulnerability. It might be due to our having been brought up in the same culture, because we are working under the same set of assumptions, have similar personalities, share the same objectives, or simply due to our common humanity.
Mutual should not be thought of as necessarily meaning “equal” or “identical.” If I’m playing chess against a friend who is far more skilled than I, and he laughs at one of my moves, it doesn’t imply that I’m his equal in this realm. It’s simply that my status dropped a little from what he might have initially perceived it to be, and his laughter would, in this case, be an expression of sympathy and understanding. He undoubtedly remembers learning chess himself and probably still make mistakes when playing superior opponents.
How the Concept Mutual Vulnerability Sheds Light on Laughter’s Dual Nature
One of the most difficult problems to be addressed by any theory of laughter is its apparent split personality. Laughter can be welcomed and comforting, but it can also be seen as cruel and humiliating. For those who maintain laughter is first and foremost, a form of communication, this poses something of a dilemma. How can a single vocalization, in some instances the very same laugh, have polar opposite effects?
The explanation involves the very nature of communication; signals themselves lack intrinsic meaning. They must be interpreted. A process of association takes place within a larger conceptual framework. If I email my colleagues that “Team A defeated Team B,” it would be considered terrific news by supporters of Team A, awful news by fans of Team B, and of no consequence to those who care nothing about the contest. Laughter, too, conveys a single message, but it can have similarly discordant impacts on various receivers.
To further illustrate, imagine that you and I are rock climbing with a mutual friend, Jenny. We are about halfway to our objective of reaching the summit, and each of us would like the distinction of reaching the top first. However, we are not expert rock climbers. We use ropes for safety and to aid our ascent, and we occasionally rely on each other for assistance. So, we consciously chose to stick together.
As we climb, you suddenly slip, falling down five or six meters until halted by your safety rope. I say something approximating, “Let’s return to the original formation,” and you feel pretty good about it. You correctly interpret it as a “get up here” message, with Jenny and I waiting long enough to reestablish our original positions relative to each other on the rock face.
A little later in the ascent, Jenny begins to move ahead of us. She is 10 meters above us when she stumbles a little. I react by calling out simply, “Return, please.” It’s a shorter version of the first message. Rather than being welcomed, Jenny instead finds it somewhat grating. She comprehends it as a “get down here” request, effectively halting her progress in an attempt to reestablish our original standing.
The same message had different functional interpretations depending on the status of the sender and receiver. For you, it effectively meant “come up” or “we’ll wait.” For Jenny, it effectively meant “come down” or “you wait.” Assuming my opinion was of some import to you both, the same message would have opposite effects on your and Jenny’s emotional state, lifting your spirits and curbing hers. I might simply have said “Back!” or whistled loudly, but if my point was made, it would have brought about the very same responses.
What about my emotional reaction? In both instances, I recognize the change in status and perceive the remedy they seem to justify—reestablishing the status quo ante—as a favorable outcome. So I’m pleased. The chances of reaching our goal are no longer diminished, and the success we anticipate will be shared by all.
When Equality Isn’t Necessarily the Objective
Even if absolute parity wasn’t the original or desired condition, a message of mutual vulnerability works in the same way. Suppose each of us climbers, before we set out, believed we were best served by Jenny staying 10 meters above the others. If she slips down a bit and we say, “Return,” she would be effectively lifted up by our request, back to her 10-meter lead. Conversely, if you feel as though I should remain 20 meters below you, and I start trying to catch up, your directive to “Return” to my original position will seem, to me, most unkind.
Such is the case with laughter. The interpretation of laughter’s meaning is like that of “Return.” That sentiment, however, can have quite different ancillary effects on the receivers. For some, a nudge in the direction of the prior status relationship will be welcomed and for others, it will not.
The following is a modified section from my book, Why We Laugh: A New Understanding.
© John Charles Simon