Communication Studies Professor Phillip Glenn, interim dean of the School of Communication, has been studying the science of laughter for three decades. He recently co-authored and edited Studies of Laughter in Interaction (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), which examines the human expression that is commonly overlooked in academic research.
“This volume presents a collection of original studies revealing the highly ordered, complex, and important phenomenon of laughter in everyday interactions,” reads a description of the scholarly book. “Building on 40 years of conversation analytic research, the authors… [demonstrate] that laughter is not simply a reaction to humor but is used in a fascinating array of different ways.”
Q: What was involved in co-authoring this book?
Glenn: I’ve been studying laughter for nearly 30 years, from my doctoral research at the University of Texas to a number of articles and an earlier book, Laughter in Interaction (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
I love to laugh and make others laugh. Some of our most meaningful, powerful moments in social life involve laughter. So I started analyzing real-life, everyday conversations, job interviews, and other materials, finding moments when laughter pops up. I created detailed transcripts that capture the sounds of laughter and its placement relative to talk. I wrote up analyses of collections of similar moments. It turns out that laughter is not this uncontrolled, involuntary response to humor. Laughter is organized, precisely placed, and follows distinct patterns.
I also became absorbed in the topic from an interest in play and playfulness. I came to play from deep interest in Shakespeare, the theatrical metaphor (“All the world’s a stage”), and Erving Goffman’s dramatistic research, especially The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Those resonated with me.
Q: Can you provide an example from your book on how laughter is not simply a reaction to humor?
Glenn: I have one instance in which an applicant in a job interview is asked, “Any other questions?” She answers, “No.” But the “no” is preceded by a vocalized pause and followed by laughter. On a transcript, it looks like this: “Um, no. Eh huhhh.” Her laugh is not responding to humor but marking the insufficiency of her own answer.
The chapter of the book I authored is an empirical study of moments like the one above, where interviewees laugh at their own talk to manage something problematic or delicate. It also includes a meditation on what nervous laughter means. Generally in my research, I stay out of people’s heads. I don’t try to claim that this person is nervous, or meant to do something, or whatever. In the chapter, however, I argue that what laypersons might think of as nervous laughs are imprecise and carry out important interactional work. They aren’t just emotional leakage.
Q: What is the most important notion or finding you came away with after conducting your research?
Glenn: Laughter is an ambiguous, ubiquitous, and incredibly versatile bit of our communicative repertoire!