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Review of  Laughter in Interaction

Reviewer: Christian F. Hempelmann
Book Title: Laughter in Interaction
Book Author: Phillip J. Glenn
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 15.1438

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Date: Tue, 4 May 2004 12:51:37 +0200
From: Christian F. Hempelmann
Subject: Laughter in Interaction

AUTHOR: Glenn, Phillip
TITLE: Laughter in Interaction
SERIES: Studies in Interactional Sociolinguistics 18
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2003

Christian F. Hempelmann, University of Memphis

LAUGHTER IN INTERACTION presents the results of a social
interactional approach that studies laughter as part of
everyday human communication. Typically for a study based on
conversation analysis (CA) the particular focus lies on
laughter's role in the sequential structure of the
interaction, and what it tells us about the people involved
in these interactions.

Chapter 1 provides a cursory review of the pertinent
literature, with foci on the physiology of laughter,
including a brief evolutionary excursus, the psychology of
laughter, including a section that addresses in passing the
research about the humorous stimuli that elicit laughter, as
well as social factors. The chapter serves as a backdrop
against which the author develops the rationale for his
approach to "understanding laughter as communication by
regarding what it is doing socially rather than how it may be
linked to some stimulus or inner state" (28).

Chapter 2 is an introduction to CA as the methodology of
Glenn's study. Previous results in CA research regarding the
role of laughter in structuring turn-taking are highlighted.
Selected details of this chapter will be addressed in more
detail below, especially the concept of 'laughable' (48f),
the stimulus for laughter that the author avoids to assign a
definition beyond a structural one, namely anything in the
(unspecified) vicinity, usually in the preceding turn, of the
laughter that is elicited by it.

The body of the book starts with Chapter 3, where research
results on laughter of CA in general and by Glenn in
particular are presented. This chapter discusses the
sequencing of shared laughter, most importantly its
initiation and possible extension: Typically, an invitation-
acceptance sequence starts laughter in conversation, if
necessary including repair strategies, but an adjacency pair
of a laughable and a volunteered laughter is also common.
Extended laughter can show strong appreciation of a single
laughable or produce additional laughables.

In addition to structure and sequence, Chapter 4 takes
specific participant constellations into account in an
attempt to answer the question, who laughs first. The main
result shows that in two-party conversations, the current
speaker is usually the one to initiate laughter, while in
multi-party conversations this is done on by another
participant. Glenn assumes that the reason lies in the
avoidance of self-praise of the current speaker, who is
typically the producer of the laughable. Exceptions to these
common sequences occur in two-party conversations because of
the necessity to share laughter, and when the laughable is
not credited to the current speaker, is self-deprecating, or
requires cueing as a laughable.

Even more than in the previous chapter, mutual participant
orientation is the center of the discussion of the short
Chapter 5, in which the difference between affiliative and
disaffiliative laughter is analyzed. The author identifies
four distinguishing keys, three of which are structural
sequencing criteria, while the first in his list is the type
of 'laughable.' More precisely, disaffiliative 'laughing at'
is characterized by a co-present as the butt of the
laughable, a first laugh by someone else than the butt, and--
in multi-party conversations--no second laugh or an
additional one by someone else, and subsequent talk on topic.
Two short analyses of transformations of kind of laughter
into the other conclude the chapter.

The most detailed and final chapter of the body of the book,
Chapter 6, starts with reviews of two CA articles on teasing
and improprieties. Laughter is found to play a crucial role
in accepting or rejecting the tease or impropriety, with
reactions ranging from disaffiliation to uptake and
escalation. A further topic is errors and ensuing continued
shared laughter in a case, in which laughter also functions
as a frame marker for playful interaction. Another set of
analyses shows how laughing can be used to resist a topic. A
final section with a literature review briefly addresses the
relevance of gender as a parameter. The results are found to
be open to interpretation and the author concludes that the
relation of gender and laughter is a methodologically complex
issue that requires further attention.

Chapter 7 provides a summary and concluding remarks on the
relevance of the discussion for future research and practical
applications. The book has a short combined index of names
and subjects

The close attention that the CA methodology forces the
researcher to pay to the sequencing structure of conversation
leads to the very relevant results that Glenn presents with
transcripts and careful analyses. This also holds for
previous results of CA on laughter that are summarized
throughout the discussion. The role that laughter plays in
interaction is well described for several main types of
situations. On this basis, the orientation of participants is
analyzed and illustrated with transcripts to provide very
insightful results. Thus, the book should benefit CA
researchers by providing an overview and new results on the
structuring role the one of the most frequent elements in
human interaction.

But the author has to sell these results short because of the
high fence that he erects, and repeatedly fortifies in his
discussion, between his CA-based functionalist, empirical,
'qualitative' research on laughter and essentialist,
theoretical, 'aprioristic' research on humor. A look over the
self-erected fence or, even better, cooperation with those
assumed to be 'on the other side' would mutually benefit CA
research on laughter as well as (linguistic) research on
laughter and humor.

This is, of course, not the place for a general evaluation of
the premisses of CA (or ethnomethodology or phenomenology),
nor is the reviewer the right person for such a task. But as
far as these premisses lead to unnecessary shortcomings of
Glenn's analysis, they are briefly addressed. This holds
primarily for his underdefined notion of the 'laughable,'
which is closely related to the other, more irritating than
harmful, symptom, namely his repeated demotion of a strawman
version of existing theory-based humor research. The latter
illustrates the motivation that leads to the former.

The author correctly points out the important dissociation
between humor and laughter (23). They are indeed inadequately
described as stimulus (humor) and response (laughter),
because either can occur without the other. In a typical
statement, the author accordingly calls for "shifting from
cause-effect terms that treat people as passive or
involuntary creatures to a vocabulary that treats people as
willful social actors" (33). This sounds empowering indeed.
And at least, since Chomsky's (1959) review of Skinner, we
know that oversimplified cause-effect accounts are inadequate
to describe social behavior, and in particular, language. But
humor and laughter very significantly correlate. And to deny
a causal relationship makes one blind to the important role
that humor plays for laughter.

The author's oversimplification of humor as 'anything goes'
is shown by the following quote: "Virtually any utterance or
action could draw laughter, under the right (or wrong)
circumstances. This fact dooms any theory that attempts to
account coherently for why people laugh" (49). This is an
astonishing remark, because to try to account for this,
albeit with a functionalistic bias, is exactly what Glenn
attempts to do. His method aims to capture those "right (or
wrong)" circumstances in detail in its descriptive, empirical

But the analysis of laughables shows that it is not at all
possible to use any utterance and transform it to a cause for
laughter under the right circumstance. Only utterances (and
actions) with a very specific semantic structure, crucially
including parameters that are often relegated to pragmatics,
are a laughable. Sadly, the author feels compelled to
consciously ignore the theoretical linguistic research in the
field of humor studies. Together with his results, this could
have told us even more about laughter than his astute study
already does.

That this ignorance is not just a shortcoming, but also a
mistake lies in the fact that the author also distinguishes
types of laughables according to their meaning for his
results, most prominently in Chapter 5, where a laughable
that has a co-present as the butt is a key indicator for
'laughing at.' That is, the laughable is no longer just
defined sequentially, but, very loosely, according to its

Sacks (1972, 1974, 1978), the founder of CA, focuses
specifically-and to a large degree fruitfully-on differences
of 'laughables,' too, namely the sequential structure of
canned jokes and puns in contrast to other stimuli.
Naturally, his definitions of puns and canned jokes are
structural and functional, that is, where do/can they occur
in the sequence of turns. But to make the distinction between
these laughables and others is implying an essential, not
just structural, difference that represents a transgression
of the assumed boundaries between CA and theoretical

Why not pursue this avenue further and combine CA and humor
research? This will be a most productive undertaking in view
of the insightful results that Glenn presents. For this
LAUGHTER IN INTERACTION will a most valuable starting point.

Chomsky, Noam. 1959. "Review of Verbal Behavior." Language
35-1: 26-58.

Sacks, Harvey. 1972. "On some Puns: With some Intimations."
In: Roger W. Shuy. Ed. Sociolinguistics: Current Trends and
Prospects. Washington, DC: Georgetown U P. 135-144.

Sacks, Harvey. 1974. "An Analysis of the Course of a Joke's
Telling in Conversation'. In: J. Sherzer, R. Bauman, Eds.
Explorations in the Ethnography of Speaking. London:
Cambridge U P. 337-353.

Sacks, Harvey. 1978. "Some Technical Considerations of a
Dirty Joke." In: Schenkein, Jim. Ed. Studies in the
Organization of Conversational Interaction. New York:
Academic. 249-70.
Christian F. Hempelmann graduated from Purdue University with
a Ph.D. in linguistics in August 2003, specializing in humor
studies and computational linguistics. He is about to join
the University of Memphis as a postdoctoral researcher in
computational linguistics. Apart from theoretical
computational linguistics and linguistic humor studies, his
research interests include historical linguistics and

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