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Review of  Laughter in Interaction

Reviewer: Giampaolo Poletto
Book Title: Laughter in Interaction
Book Author: Phillip J. Glenn
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 22.49

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AUTHOR: Glenn, Phillip
TITLE: Laughter in Interaction
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Interactional Sociolinguistics 18
YEAR: 2010
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press

Giampaolo Poletto, Doctoral School, University of Pécs, Hungary



This volume, which is a digitally printed version of a previously published
book, represents an ideal synthesis of the author's twenty-year-long study on
the sequential, systematic and social-oriented organization of laughter in
everyday talk. The goals are to provide a comprehensive review of research on
laughter in the framework of Conversation Analysis (CA); to organize, display,
and foster a social interactional approach to laughter, which is a shift with
respect to physical, psychological and social approaches.

Chapter I: Towards a social interactional approach to laughter

Laughter-in-interaction is both an effect and a cause, because we ''do'' it and it
''does'' us, as to meaning, self, relationship, society, culture. Towards its
understanding as a social phenomenon, four sections focus on how and why people
laugh, on social aspects of laughter, on the contribution and collocation of CA,
on the perspective of past research, which focuses on it as a behaviour, and on
new insights into the above questions. A first observation is that sounds of
laughter tie to the interpretation of their meaning and are not context-bound
(Milford, 1980). Laughter is a universal solitary and group form of expression,
which is proper to three primates at least, although only humans have the
cognitive sophistication to laugh at jokes, etc., display amusement,
friendliness, etc. (among others, see Edmonson, 1987; Fry & Allen, 1975).
Laughter also ties to emotions, although this may isolate it as individual
rather than communicative. Superiority, incongruity, relief, and ''pleasant
psychological shift'' theories show why humans should laugh, whereas Morreall
(1983) extends the sources of laughter to non-humorous stimuli, situations and
causes, tickling and embarrassment among others. Studying laughter as
communication sheds light on its complexity, as an act and process with a
jointly constituted meaning. Osborne and Chapman (1977) demonstrate how social
environment influences both laughter and the perception of humor, in other words
the presence, absence and characteristics -- gender, role, position, etc. - of
hearers. Other social traits are engagement in play, affiliative function,
shared nature, among others. The emphasis of the discussion is on the
co-construction of sequences, interactions, meanings, understandings. Laughter
is hypothesized to have orderly, regular production and placement features.

Chapter II: Conversation analysis and the study of laughter

This chapter turns to CA as a qualitative research method for a social
interactional approach to shared laughter. In an ethnomethodological and more
interdisciplinary perspective, CA orients to 'talk-in-interaction' (Psathas,
1995) as an orderly and organized speech-exchange system, which can be analysed
in systematic and describable ways, through recordings and transcriptions, as
naturalistic as possible, of utterances, turns at talk, and individual actions.
The author pinpoints the difference with discourse analysis, along with Levinson
(1983), in that CA deals with actual interactions and participants' procedures
and orientations. Then he addresses the way CA methodology applies to laughter
in talk, in coordination with other sounds and actions, in relation to
'laughables', a term used “to describe any referent which draws laughter or for
which I can reasonably argue that it is designed to draw laughter” (p.49).

Chapter III: Laughing together

From the viewpoint of communication, shared laughter is thoroughly discussed as
a social invitation-acceptance sequence, whose extension is processed as to its
variable and different stages. As Jefferson (1979) observes, first laughs work
as: an invitation, to be accepted or declined, through co-initiated laughter,
silence, maintenance of serious talk, even through mid-points such as brief
laugh particles and smiles; a cue to the speaker's orientation towards the
talk-in-progress. Their placement is crucial to the sequential environment of
occurrence, and is better rendered through visual cueing than through audio
recordings, especially in the case of extensions - of a speech unit, of a single
laughable, of a next-in-a-series laughable(s) - eventually up to prolonged
communal laughter.

Chapter IV: Who laughs first

The main issue raised here is the alignment of interacting parties to the
laughable and to each other, through laughing or not, regardless of the fact
that laughter is first or follows. Along with the premise that turns are
available to one party at a time (Sacks et al., 1974), ''current speaker'' and
''other'' designate the parties who simultaneously hold and do not hold the turn,
by selecting the next speaker, by letting the others do it, by restarting if
no-one takes the turn. Such distinctions are not so clear-cut, as participants
do not always know or display the role they occupy, as the exemplifying
transcripts and the relevant analysis put on evidence. They focus on the way
laughter may become two- or multi-party and be shared, with reference to the
laughable and its nature, and to the way and by whom laughter is initiated and
spread. The picture is obviously complex. Case studies are reported and they
stress and describe how interactional difficulties occur, work, are treated, and
are overcome or not, in relation to elements such as self-praise or
self-deprecation, bias, ownership, or credit, for instance. Accordingly, roles,
steps and orientations in the ongoing interaction are defined, negotiated and
taken, around laughables, the interpretation of them and of the speaker's move,
the consequent enactment of or restraint from laughter.

Chapter V: 'Laughing at' and 'laughing with': negotiating participant alignments

Laughter contributes to both affiliation and disaffiliation -- namely
distancing, disparagement, feelings of superiority, etc. The underlying
distinction is between 'laughing with' and 'laughing at'. The focus is herewith
on both and on the shift from the former to the latter and vice versa, when
parties negotiate four distinctive key factors such as the nature of the
laughable, first laugh, (possible) second laugh, and subsequent talk on topic.
If affiliative laughter -- hence 'with' - reflects agreement with the speaker's
position, disaffiliative laughter -- in other words 'at' -- shows, for instance,
that the speaker's words are not to be taken seriously, but may also be implied
in the former. Shift occurs when requirements for the former are not met, as the
enactment of the latter displays, as in failed joke-telling. Shift also takes
place from the latter to the former, when, for example, the person laughed at
attempts a realignment of their role via some activities. This is to briefly
portray how people create, modify and maintain social relationships through
laughter and related phenomena.

Chapter VI: Laughing along, resisting: constituting relationship and identity

This chapter offers an insight into the bonding effect of laughter, with
reference to interactional intimacy and the role of 'laughing along', which ties
to the notion of play in conversation as a metacommunicative frame (Bateson,
1972; Goffman, 1974). In this sense, laughter can both imply the use of
improprietous language and be used to show resistance, as facets of identity are
at stake, for instance, gender. Laughing or not, length and placement of a laugh
may actually support the empirical demonstration of the assumption according to
which women concentrate on politeness and the ''work'' of conversation, whereas
men focus more on status and holding the floor. The issues are expanded
affiliative sequences and the ''work'' that laughter may be doing. Teasing is
accounted for (Drew, 1987), in the sense that response to it may be laughter,
although the substance of the tease may as well be taken seriously, even more
seriously when improprieties are involved, as responses range from
disaffiliating to declining to respond, from disattending to affiliating and
escalating, with laughter at a midpoint (Jefferson et al., 1987).

Chapter VII: Closing remarks

The book closes with future perspectives for development and research on the
topic. After a review of the chapters of the volume and the major issues
discussed, the author stresses the importance of the shift of the treatment of
laughter, from a behavioural to a communicative standpoint. The result is that
laughter is a complex social phenomenon, which implies sharing by the
co-intervention, co-construction and interaction of the involved parties,
therefore a multiplicity of aspects, consequently, different disciplines. In
this perspective, CA seems to provide the appropriate tools to deal with
laughter as part of talk-in-interaction. Admittedly, laughter is an orderly
systematic and organized sequence, a process which goes through different
stages. Each infers the enactment of strategies by the participants, as laughter
directly ties to meaning and relationship. Given that a thorough and complete
understanding of the above aspects and their interrelations has not been
achieved yet, there are many stimuli to pursue research, and carry out further
analyses and investigations.


The author effectively pursues his plan to display the social and communicative
nature of laughter and the feasibility of research on the topic, carried out in
the framework of CA. Nevertheless, laughter is not just a matter of qualitative
studies conducted through the analysis of recordings and transcripts, of
communicational moves, steps and turns by the participants, of interpreting a
laughable as affiliative or disaffiliative, of reframing and play. It is also a
matter of emotion, unpredictability, spontaneity and ambiguity, as acknowledged
in the very closing remarks. In the end, so much has been done, and so much is
still to be done, in terms of interdisciplinary investigations and contributions.


Bateson, Gregory (1972) A theory of play and fantasy. In Steps to an Ecology of
Mind, (177-193) New York: Ballantine.

Drew, Paul (1987) Po-faced receipts of teases. Linguistics 25 (219-253).

Edmonson, Munro Sterling (1987) Notes on laughter. Anthropological Linguistics
29 (23-34).

Fry, William, and Allen, Melanie (1975) Make 'em laugh. Palo Alto, CA: Science
and Behavior Books.

Goffman, Ervin (1974) Frame analysis; an essay on the organization of
experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Jefferson, Gail (1979) A technique for inviting laughter and its subsequent
acceptance declination. In G. Psathas (ed.), Everyday language: studies in
ethnomethodology (79-96) New York: Irvington.

Jefferson, Gail, Sacks, Harvey, Schegloff, Emanuel (1987) Notes on laughter in
the pursuit of intimacy. In G. Button and J.R.E. Lee (eds.) Talk and social
organisation (152-205) Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Milford, Patricia (1980) Perception of laughter and its acoustical properties.
Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Pennsylvania State University, College Park.
Abstract in 1981 Dissertation Abstracts International, 41A, 3779A.

Morreall, John (1983) Taking laughter seriously. Albany, NY: State University of
New York.

Osborne, Kathryn and Chapman, Antony (1977) Suppression of adult laughter: an
experimental approach. In A.J. Chapman and H.C. Foot (eds.), It's a funny thing,
humor (429-431) Oxford: Pergamon.

Sacks, Harvey, Schegloff, Emanuel, Jefferson, Gail (1974) A simplest systematics
for the organization of turn-taking in conversation. Language 50 (696-735).

Giampaolo Poletto is a doctoral candidate in Applied Linguistics at the Doctoral School of Pécs University, in Hungary. He has published in journals and online, and participated in international conferences. His interests range from Pragmatics to Discourse Analysis, from Applied Linguistics to Second Language Teaching, given his unifying field of research, which is organically displayed in his book 'Humor in the language classroom. A discursive analysis of interactions in the educational environment', 2010, Lambert Academic Publishing.

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