Sunday, November 2, 2014

Why Women Laugh

Whether in a restaurant, Metro, or in the street, at a party or work place, you can't avoid it - the increasingly loud and ever more unpleasant female laughter. Are women having more fun than ever before or are they sending a message? What is the purpose of laughter that is clearly forced and not a genuine reaction to something funny?

A few years ago, a young woman in our office announced she was leaving.  Everyone wished her well in her next endeavor and expressed regret that she would no longer be with us. But privately, a few people murmured "thank god we won't have to listen to that dreadful laughter any more."  The person in question always had a smile pasted on her face, and exuded exuberance and energy.  You'd never see her frown, sulk or pout.  You'd never see her angry or sad.  But behind that smile, she could be as tough as nails.  It seemed to me that she made her smile deliberately phony to mock everyone above and below her status, as if saying: "You want smiling staff?  Here I am."  Often, she would burst into startlingly loud fits of laughter that echoed across the office expanse and had everyone raise their head. The outbursts never sounded spontaneous.  The booming ha-ha, ha-ha, haaaa staccato was almost disturbing.

New arrivals in recent years included more laughing women.  Giggling, cackling, chortling, tittering, chuckling, snickering, howling, snorting, screeching and roaring with all types of laughter has become so commonplace in our office that it almost goes unnoticed.  But some of the outbursts cannot be ignored, for they are too explosive, sometimes intimidating, and most often simply irritating.   Regardless of the variation, nuance or volume, there are two things these laughs have in common - they are forced and they all come from just a handful of women.

I don't know how many times my train of thought has been interrupted while struggling to summarize a complex issue in a few short paragraphs by ho-ho-ho's that sound more like machine-gun fire than laughter.  Or by girlish giggling behind my back.  Or some female acting as if she is choking with hilarity and gasping for air, sort of agh-agh-agh-agh, instead of ha-ha-ha-ha, or squealing "oh my God, it's soooo funny!" So putting my report on hold, I wonder for the umpteenth time: why is it that some women feel the need to fake "uncontrollable" guffaws, or bouts of prolonged laughter - squeezing out every last bit of it like a patient coughing to expel every last bit of phlegm.  Are they aware how terrible they sound?  Probably not because no one tells them. Criticizing someone for laughing is akin to child molesting in a society that considers laughter, even fake laughter, wonderful, healthy and necessary for survival.

The first explanation that came to mind when I could no longer ignore the phenomenon, was that fake laughter serves as tension relief,  like yawning does sometimes.  I once had a woman sitting next to me at work, who was constantly yawning - open-mouthed and loudly. Having grown up in a culture where yawning in public is considered a social faux pas, I asked her to stop it because it was rude and inconsiderate (yawning can be infectious).  She said she could not help it - that she was tired or sleepy or whatever. I said, "No, you are doing it because you are tense. Just relax and stop yawning." The next day she told me, "You know, you were right. I realize that I yawn when I am nervous and under pressure."

Laughter could be providing the same kind of relief.  But in some cases that explanation did not fit.  Like, why do I never hear men at work bursting into seemingly uncontrollable laughter even though they have a lot of fun? They joke, smile and laugh - but apparently quite genuinely and without a need to impose their hilarity on others.

What do psychologists have to say about this social phenomenon? Apparently quite a lot. It is generally assumed that laughter is healthy because it promotes the release of good chemicals in your body.  If you don't laugh enough, you are advised to take laughter yoga lessons. Because according to some studies, fake laughter is as good as any. 

Charles Schaefer, psychology professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey, was quoted in an article as saying that “Forced laughter is a powerful, readily available and cost-free way for many adults to regularly boost their mood and psychological well-being.” He said that phony laughter works as well as real laughter because your body doesn’t know it’s fake, even though your brain might.  “Once the brain signals the body to laugh, the body doesn’t care why. It’s going to release endorphins, it’s going to relieve stress as a natural physiological response to the physical act of laughing,” said Schaefer.

As soon as I read that part, I forced myself to laugh for a full minute and waited for the benefits.  Following the article was this question from a reader named Chuck.

"What about the downside of forced laughter, including the assumption of insincerity by those listening to someone doing it?

To me, hearing forced laughter at the end of almost every sentence, none of which are actually worthy of a laugh, is like listening to fingernails on a chalkboard. It makes those forcing the laughter seem more than a bit ignorant, and at the very least, very insecure.

Is encouraging forced laughter worthwhile if that's the perception, or do those of us who feel negatively about it have more serious problems of our own?

God bless you, Chuck!  You took the question from mouth. How can something phony be good for you? And, BTW, I did not feel any endorphins kick in after my forced-laugh session. Should I enroll in laughter yoga?  

Next I found a more recent article 
by Victoria Woollaston in the British Daily Mail with the following bullet points:
  1. You really can't fake a laugh: Our brains are hardwired to tell the difference between genuine and fake chuckling
  2. Study found our brains respond differently to genuine and fake laughter 
  3. Fake laughter activates a part of the brain linked with deciphering emotions, while genuine laughter lights up areas linked with positive feelings
Woollaston says: " Next time your boss tells a bad joke and you feel compelled to laugh, beware - they can tell you're faking it (but they don't care, I might add).  Researchers from London have discovered our brains carry out different process when we hear genuine laughter compared to fake chuckles.

When laughter is forced, for example, it activates a part of the brain linked with deciphering emotions.  This means we know it's not a genuine laugh, and we automatically try to work out why they're faking it, what the laugh means and what they're thinking."  (Thanks Vicky, that's what I do.)

Finally, I came across a most edifying article by Robert Provine, psychology professor and author of the book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.  He says a study he has conducted found that "In cross-gender conversations, females laughed 126% more than their male counterparts."  His study also showed that men tell more jokes and do more clowning to elicit laughter.

Furthermore, says Provine, "In many societies worldwide -- ranging from the Tamil of Southern India to the Tzeltal of Mexico -- laughter is self-effacing behavior, and the women in my study may have used it as an unconscious vocal display of compliance or solidarity with a more socially dominant group member. "

Provine also says that the gender patterns of laughter are fluid and they shift with social circumstance,  "For example," he says, "the workplace giggles of a young female executive will probably diminish as she ascends the corporate ladder."

"Consider your own workplace.  Have you ever encountered a strong leader with a giggle? Someone who laughs a lot, and unconditionally, may be a good team player, but they'll seldom be a president," says Provine.

Something to keep in mind before signing up for that laughter yoga class.

Further reading:

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