The Theology of Everyday Life: The Theology of Humor, Part 3, "Friendship, Laughter, and Smiles"

This week I've talked about "downward humor" and "upward humor." I think today I'll speak about "lateral humor."

Most of the time we use humor to bond with others. As my friend Jeff Reese said yesterday, humor is a social lubricant. And from what we have learned about humor we now know how humor functions in that fashion. As a status signaling device, humor is integral to mediating complex social encounters.

But most of the time we are not trying to use humor to signal high status (downward humor) or to critique those in high status (upward humor). No, most of our humor usage is to signal that we are friendly, that we desire camaraderie and intimacy.

How do we do this? Recall what we learned in our last post about humor production, consumption, and status. Humor production is associated with high status, while humor consumption (i.e., laughing) is associated with low status. We observed in Robert Provine's research that, in naturalistic speaker-audience interactions, speakers tend to laugh more than audiences. That is, when we say something funny we tend to laugh at ourselves first and then others join in. Why? Well, by consuming our own humor we signal low status, that we are not claiming a high status role in the interaction. We interpret this as friendliness. Once signaled with speaker laughter, the audience responds in laughter which also signals low status. The shared laugher signals that both parties are wanting to interact as equals, as friends.

In short, deep, shared, mutual laugher is the stuff of friendship. We revel in it.

This idea is supported by theories of why we smile as humans. Smiling, which is closely associated with laughter, is, when you think about it, a goofy thing. Why bear your teeth to people in this odd manner? Many theorists have speculated that the human smile evolved from the primate fear face. When afraid, primates tend to expose their teeth in what looks like a smile. (I've copied the picture to the right to illustrate this.)
Some have speculated that the human smile face functions socially much as the primate fear face functions. That is, in a primate interaction the fear face is typically displayed by the lower status individual. Thus,

Fear face = low status.

So, the thinking goes with the human smile:

Fear face = Smile = low status = friendly (or no-threat)

Some speculate that this the the dynamic behind our smile, that the smile evolved from a low status display in primates. This seems reasonable in that this dynamic (i.e., a display signaling low status) parallels the research with humor where a low status display is interpreted as friendliness.

That's interesting. Think of that when you smile automatically at that passing stranger in the supermarket! And by the way, that is what it is like being me. I pass by a person on the street, flash my smile and wonder to myself: "It's interesting how we just flashed an ancient primate low status display at each other to signal goodwill and friendliness." Welcome to my madness...

So in the the end, humor and smiling is about power. But for most of us, it is actually about eschewing power. Our laugher and our smiles tell the world, "I'm a friend."

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2 thoughts on “The Theology of Everyday Life: The Theology of Humor, Part 3, "Friendship, Laughter, and Smiles"”

  1. how about the "using humor to wound"...syndrome...sarcasm i think it is called.......some mask the truth thinly and grate against you...

    whilst others make thick and sweet.. almost syrupy references to this an/or that...either wat i see this...attack.. for what it is and

    avoid it at all costs...from either direction

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