From first dates to business presentations to even memorial services and funerals, humor and laughter are a part of nearly every human experience. But what are we really conveying when we laugh? Communication Studies Professor Phillip Glenn, an expert on the topic, spearheaded a conference last month that delved into that question.
Sponsored by Emerson’s School of Communication and born out of similar conferences previously held in Japan and England, the Laughter and Humor in Interaction International Conference was held at Emerson June 23–24. Scholars from around the world convened to discuss the use of humor in families, classrooms, job interviews, political interviews, and oncology visits, among other topics.
“It’s not about why we laugh, but how, and what we’re communicating when we laugh,” said Glenn. According to him, laughter itself is different in different kinds of situations, and it also has different meanings and interpretations. “Like naturalists collect and classify butterflies, we’re collecting and classifying types of laughs and situations where humor arises,” explained Glenn.
Presentations and papers covered topics such as the sequential organization of laughter and how laughing and humor-related actions shape identities and relationships. Humor and laughter often, but not always, occur together, said Glenn. “Many laughs have nothing to do with anything funny, and many humorous moments don’t include laughter. Nevertheless, studying the two together encourages understanding where they intersect.”
Glenn has published several studies on humor and laughter in communication, as well as a book, Laughter in Interaction (2003). A collection of studies on laughter he is editing with Elizabeth Holt, On Laughing: Studies of Laughter in Interaction, will be published in 2012.