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Review of  Humor in Interaction

Reviewer: Ksenia Mikhailovna Shilikhina
Book Title: Humor in Interaction
Book Author: Neal R Norrick Delia Chiaro
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Issue Number: 21.3430

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EDITORS: Norrick, Neal R.; Chiaro, Delia
TITLE: Humor in Interaction
SERIES: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 182
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2009

Ksenia Shilikhina, Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, Voronezh
State University

This 240-page collection, part of Pragmatics & Beyond New Series (P&BNS)
published by John Benjamins, addresses issues of verbal humor in real-life
spontaneous conversations. Humor is a fundamental ingredient of our social
behavior and traditions of humor research exist in modern psychology,
anthropology, literary criticism, sociology, medicine and even computer science
(e.g., Raskin 2008). ''Humor in Interaction'' presents new findings in verbal
humor research from conversational and interactional perspective.

As the title suggests, interactional aspects of humor are central here. The
contributors avoid the tradition of describing humor from the researcher's
intuitive assumptions of what is funny and what is not. Instead, they
concentrate on the ways humor functions in conversation and base their research
on recorded dialogues and other data (e.g. narratives) drawn from talks in
different settings. The idea underlying all contributions is that humor is a
specific multifunctional mode of discourse.

The volume contains ten chapters in four parts. The papers in Part I discuss
verbal humor in spontaneous conversation among family and friends. Part II
focuses on gender issues of verbal humor in a workplace. Part III addresses the
issue of failed humor. Finally, Part IV is devoted to the role of humor in
various bilingual settings. The authors represent various theoretical
perspectives and base their analyses on data from cultures including French,
German, the Maori and Pakeha cultures of New Zealand.


In their Introduction, Neal R. Norrick and Delia Chiaro present an overview of
the interactional approach to humor. They argue that, because humor constitutes
an important part of our everyday interaction, it is promising to apply methods
of conversational analysis to humorous communication. They explain the reasons
for organizing contributions and give a brief overview of the chapters. I turn
now to a short description of each contribution.

Part I. The first part consists of four papers united by the kind of data used
for humor research, namely, spontaneous conversations among friends and family
members. This kind of private communication provides researches with naturally
occurring instances of verbal humor.

Chapter 1. Susan Ervin-Tripp and Martin Lampert address the issue of revealing
personal information through humor in ''The occasioning of self-disclosure
humor''. The research was based on 102 recorded and transcribed dialogues in
groups of adults and children aged from 7 to 10. The general idea is that humor
is a good mode of talking about one's personal experience, especially if this
experience was not particularly happy. Ervin-Tripp and Lampert demonstrate how
humorous exchanges perform the important function of self-disclosure in a
variety of interactional contexts. Analysis shows how self-directed humor helps
either to maintain existing topic or introduce a new one in a situation of
self-disclosure. Self-directed humorous remarks also show the speaker’s reaction
to an incidental environmental event.

The authors also address gender differences, where results suggest that using
humor for self-disclosure in American culture tends to be gender-specific:
self-directed humorous talk in groups of female peers tends to be used in
complex narrations and reveals common concerns or troubles while humorous
self-disclosure in male groups serves an entertaining function.

In Chapter 2, ''Direct address as a resource for humor'', N. Norrick and C. Bubel
explore the functions and the outcomes of humorous direct address in everyday
discourse. Multiple forms of direct address have several discursive functions;
among them identification and expressive function are most important. As for
humorous forms of address, they reveal information about social positions and
interpersonal relations between the participants of communication, e.g., forms
of endearment may function as markers of irony, mock sympathy or deprecation.

Another case of creating humorous effect is using inappropriate terms of
address. Incongruity is contextually significant: it categorizes discursive
behavior of the interlocutor as inappropriate. The examples of dialogues clearly
illustrate that the choice of terms of address (e.g. psychotherapist Lisa or
Mister Prescriptive) signals the speakers' ironic evaluation of the position
taken up by the addressee.

Norrick and Bubel conclude that humorous forms of address are dynamic and
context-dependent, and sometimes interpretation of humorous address involves
substantial cultural knowledge.

In Chapter 3, ''An Interactional Approach to Irony Development'', Helga Kothoff
addresses the problem of verbal irony -- a popular object of research. She notes
that the majority of existing theories of verbal irony are based on single
utterances constructed by linguists. Moving beyond this tradition, Kothoff
analyzes large chunks of dialogues and shows that irony is not an isolated act,
and can happen in a sequence of utterances in a dialogue. Kothoff uses dialogues
of 9-year-old children and shows how their ironic utterances reproduce voices of
others, e.g. teachers, and exercise their knowledge about norms and behavioral

Kothoff's analysis of irony is based on the assumption that the meaning of
ironic utterances is double-layered and these layers somehow oppose each other.
This opposition is the source of difficulties in production and understanding of
irony in discourse. The idea of double-layered semantics of ironic utterances is
combined with another theoretical platform -- Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of
multiple voicing in discourse. Irony is then viewed as a complex mode of
discourse because it necessarily involves performance. Children's use of irony
shows that animation of different voices (especially voices of authority) is
essential for understanding of irony and negotiation of behavioral standards.

In ''Multimodal and Intertextual Humor while Watching TV'', Chapter 4, Cornelia
Gerhardt discusses interactional behavior of British football fans watching
matches. She uses a corpus of naturally occurring dialogues videotaped in home
settings. This study is interesting because it investigates the interaction
between the media text and verbal exchanges of people watching football.

Gerhardt shows that fans' laughter can be elicited either by positive actions of
their team or by humorous remarks made by sportscasters. She starts her analysis
with humor produced in sports casting and then discusses humor produced by the
viewers. Gerhardt uses the notion of multimodality to describe the connection
between what is shown on screen and the verbal reaction of the viewers. As the
author argues, the important feature of these dialogues is that humor created by
television viewers is an intertextual response to the sports casting. In general
the situation of watching football creates an atmosphere of closeness and
enjoyment. In this kind of setting verbal humor works as a signal of sociability
and helps to negotiate the media text.

Part II. Two chapters included in the second part discuss humor in the
workplace. Both use the data from the Wellington Language in the Workplace
Project. Another common feature of the papers is their clear sociolinguistic
orientation. The main question is how humor can be used to construct social
identity or activate certain aspects of this identity in a particular interaction.

Organizational discourse is a specific context with its own rules and norms.
Research of language use in a workplace shows that these rules and norms are
often gender-specific. Humor in a workplace also seems to be a gender-specific
activity used for constructing identities in organizational discourse.

In Chapter 5, ''Using humor to do masculinity at work'', Stephanie Schnurr and
Janet Holmes use recordings made in several New Zealand professional
organizations to show that humor in the workplace is a versatile discursive
strategy. They frame their study around the concept of community of practice and
social identity theory, analyzing manifestations of masculinity in workplace
interactions and describing instances of gendered humor. The researchers
maintain that, because workplaces are male-dominated, masculine discursive
strategies are considered to be a standard mode of communication. Directness and
assertiveness being the main features of these strategies are expressed by
various linguistic means. For those interested in workplace humor the chapter
provides a rich bibliography on gender issues and humorous communication at work.

Chapter 6 is ''Boundary-marking humor'' by B.Vine, S. Kell, M. Marra and J.
Holmes. The paper discusses the use of humor in dialogues between women
belonging to different New Zealand ethnic groups -- the Māori and the Pākehā.
The women work at the same government department, but the two groups are in
different social positions -- the Māori are traditionally considered to be a
minority while the Pākehā people are the dominant group. The authors start from
the premise that humor is not only a tool for creating and maintaining in-group
boundaries and norms, but also a linguistic strategy used by minorities to
construct positive identity and subvert the influence of dominant groups. The
exaggerated stereotypes of the dominant groups created by members of minority
groups become a source of entertainment. Another important point pursued by Vine
et al. is that our social identity is dynamic and various facets of it come to
the fore in different situations.

The analysis of the dialogues starts with examples of institutional
boundary-marking. Both ethnic groups use humor to refer to the more dominant
out-group of the wider public service. The second portion of dialogues
illustrates how humor is used for gender boundary-marking. Finally, the authors
present examples of ethnic boundary marking humor. Here the Māori speaker uses a
negative self-stereotype in a humorous way and the utterance creates the feeling
of in-group closeness. The analysis shows that humorous communication in a
workplace can be seen as a way of social demarcation. It also enables activation
of different aspects of social identities in various discursive settings.

Part III. Because humor is a semantically and pragmatically laden mode of
speaking, there is always a chance of miscommunication. The papers in the third
part discuss cases of failed humor. Both papers pay attention to the fact that
failed humor has been a largely neglected area of humor research in linguistics.
In fact, these instances of miscommunication can be a valuable source of
information about humorous discourse.

In Chapter 7, ''Impolite responses to failed humor'', Nancy Bell deals
specifically with situations in which listeners consider humor inappropriate and
respond to humorous utterances aggressively. The pragmatic effect of the
recipient's aggression is either belittling the speaker, social exclusion or
humiliation. Verbal aggression is closely related to impoliteness, the key
concept of this study. It is described as an interactional value-laden
phenomenon. Bell reviews pragmatic theories of impoliteness and face, arguing
that the role of humor in rapport management is oversimplified by researchers
who treat humor as an aggressive face-threatening mode of discourse and those
who consider humor a tool for cooperative communication.

The interactional data was collected in an experiment where the recipients were
prompted to react to a joke which was easy to recognize as such and at the same
time likely to fail. All reactions were rated as polite or impolite. Further
discussion focused only on impolite responses. These can be either
face-threatening (i.e. positive) or face-saving (i.e. negative). Results show
that the majority of responses fall into the category of offensive, positive
impoliteness strategies. These include snubbing, showing unconcern or being
unsympathetic. Some recipients used negative impoliteness strategies to signal
that a joke had failed. Pragmatically negative strategies challenge the speaker
or invading the other's space.

Bell offers four explanations for why people show aggressive reactions to failed
humor. This may happen because people view jokes as a disruptive mode of
discourse, or as something which does not meet their behavioral expectations.
The third reason is close relationships between the joke-tellers and recipients
-- the majority of impolite responses came from friends and family members.
Finally, identity concerns/face claims are the fourth reason to show that the
joke was not amusing.

Chapter 8 Béatrice Priego-Valverde addresses the problem of failed humor in
''Failed humor in conversation: A double voicing analysis''. Using Bakhtin's
notion of double voicing, she explains several important features of verbal
humor, e.g. the contrast between seriousness and playfulness, or the distance
between speaker and hearer, or the speaker's ambiguous intention. Double voicing
perspective is also a useful tool for explaining why humor sometimes fails.

Humor fails when interlocutors use different modes of speech (sincere and
serious vs. playful and humorous mode). Preigo-Valverde distinguishes two kinds
of humor failures: when the joke is not perceived or when it is perceived as
such but rejected by the listener. Priego-Valverde analyzes conversations among
friends and shows how humor can go unnoticed or, when the joke is
face-threatening and aggressive, it can be openly rejected.

The theoretical framework includes the notions of interactive space (the image
of the interaction co-constructed by participants) and the idea of positions. Of
particular interest are the subjective position and enunciative position. The
former comprises the images of the interlocutors constructed by the speaker,
while the latter refers to the mode of presentation.

Part IV. The final part concentrates on humor in bilingual interactions.
Language acquisition is yet another area where humor is important.

Chapter 9, ''Humor and Interlanguage in a bilingual elementary school setting'' by
Kristin Kersten, addresses the question of how humor is used in the process of
language acquisition. She reviews previous findings in the area of child humor
in SLA. Children experience difficulties at different levels of language (e.g.
lack of vocabulary or insufficient grammatical competence) and some problems
also arise on a cognitive level. Then Kersten views these problems through the
prism of Grice’s (1975) model of cooperative communication and claims that humor
in SLA is the result of incongruity in communication, in other words, violation
of expectations and the actual linguistic performance of a child.

The second issue addressed is the process of child humor development and the
functions humor serves in child communication. A widespread view is that humor
development is grounded in children's early play experience. Children learn to
understand and to produce humor at an early age and humorous discourse plays an
important role in the process of the child's socialization.

Kersten uses audio- and video-taped narratives elicited from 6-7-year-old
children who study English at a partial immersion elementary school in northern
Germany. Humor is not a teaching priority in a second language classroom, yet
children use humor creatively to manage social interaction. Kersten identifies
situations in which children often use humor: Embarrassment, Pictorial
Incongruity, Clowning and Involuntary Incongruity are most frequent. Kersten
concludes that at the age of 6 and 7 children use humor non-aggressively.

Humor in interaction of bilingual couples is yet another area of research chosen
by Delia Chiaro in Chapter 10, ''Cultural divide or unifying factor? Humorous
talk in the interaction of bilingual, cross-cultural couples''. Humor is viewed
as a form of collaboration that enhances relationships and contributes to the
quality of communication between spouses.

Chiaro uses quantitative data from self-reporting questionnaires and information
drawn from semi-structured interviews for qualitative analysis. The
questionnaires asked about social and demographic background as well as
linguistic information and included questions regarding the use of humor in
family interaction.

The first question that arises is the choice of language in different situations
(e.g. communication with partner's relatives, worship, talking about money,
etc.). Questionnaire data shows that using their partner's language creates
bonds that usually make spouses happy and the evolution of the relationship
gradually leads to frequent code-switching in humorous discourse.

Though research findings claim that sense of humor is in many ways a universal
trait and is not culture-dependent, interviews showed that people tend to
connect the ability to perceive humor with language impediments and cultural
diversity of the partners.


Most theoretical models of verbal humor are text-oriented. In contrast, the
present interactional approach is speaker- and listener-oriented. Every paper in
this volume demonstrates practical ways of collecting and interpreting
interactional data. An interactional approach allows an interdisciplinary
description of how humor functions in discourse. This empirical groundedness
shows that humor is an important linguistic tool in our everyday interaction. It
serves multiple functions, such as construction of complex social identities or
in-group affiliation. People draw on humor to construct their identities or to
create intertextual connections. An interactional approach to humor emphasizes
that any use of humor can be understood only in a particular context.


Grice Herbert P. 1975. Logic and conversation. In Syntax and Semantics. Vol. 3:
Speech Acts, Peter Cole & Jerry L. Morgan (Eds), 41-58. New York: Academic Press.

Raskin Viktor (Ed). 2008. The Primer of Humor Research. Mouton de Gruyter.

Ksenia Shilikhina is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Voronezh State University, Russia. Her current projects include research of verbal humor and irony. Another area of interest is corpus linguistics.