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WSU researcher discovers bad jokes bring out the worst

Sat., Aug. 2, 2008

Think twice before telling your next joke.

If people find it funny, great. If they don’t, you may find yourself the target of more hostility and derision than you expect.

Surveys conducted at Washington State University suggest that “failure to deliver on the promise of humor” elicits strong reactions from listeners – from relatively mild responses like groans to cursing and insults to the occasional punch in the shoulder.

“I wasn’t looking for impolite responses,” said Nancy Bell, an applied linguist and assistant professor of English who ran the survey. “I was just looking for responses. I started looking at them and thinking, ‘Oh my God, these are so rude.’ ”

Students working on the survey asked people a genuinely lousy joke, slipped into a routine conversation: What did the big chimney say to the little chimney? Nothing. Chimneys can’t talk.

Of more than 200 responses, Bell classified 44 percent as impolite. These typically hit on a narrow range of themes, she said: “You suck, or that joke sucks, or both you and that joke suck.”

She expected people might be more forgiving, or at least gentler in their disdain, but she was taken aback by the vehemence and aggression in the responses. She said that because jokes are often disruptive, they can provoke extra disappointment when they fail.

As part of the “small world of humor research,” Bell is accustomed to people who might ask: What’s the point of researching humor?

The survey is part of Bell’s larger research into humor and people learning a second language. Humor is one of the more complex elements of language and culture, and it can be difficult for people to grasp when they’re learning a language.

“Even as you become competent (in a language), a lot of humor relies on subtle cultural context,” she said. “Not everything is spelled out.”

She remembers working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, where she was frequently paid the following compliment: “Oh, man, you’re so fat.”

In Cameroon, that was a way of telling someone they seemed happy, well-fed. To an American woman, though, the context was a lot different.

Humor is actually a rich source of research. Freud wrote about jokes and the unconscious. Others study “joke theory.” The International Society for Humor Studies publishes a quarterly newsletter.

Scientists have studied everything from the relationship between pain and humor to the role humor plays in family dynamics. They’ve even examined the relationship between humor and early mortality (people with a good sense of humor tend to live longer, though the opposite is true for people who are deemed “cheerful,” one study suggests).

Bell said that while there is a body of research into humor, many social interactions are better understood – such as greetings or compliments. While there is sometimes an attitude that humor is a benevolent force, people actually use humor in complicated and wide-ranging ways, including cruelty.

Bell now might look for ways to investigate other kinds of failed humor that are more spontaneous than a joke. In the most recent survey, she found that several factors influenced the intensity of the reactions to the lousy joke – people who are younger or who knew the joke-teller well were more likely to respond with an attack.

“I thought, everybody’s flubbed up a joke and been embarrassed,” she said. “I thought if you already know somebody is feeling humiliated because they told a stupid joke, you wouldn’t rub it in.”


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