Communication Studies Professor Phillip Glenn. Photo/Molly Loughman
By Molly Loughman
With over three decades of research on the ways people use laughter in everyday interactions, Emerson Communication Studies Professor Phillip Glenn’s insights are being shared around the world – most recently in the prestigious New York Review of Books.
A decade after publishing Laughter in Interaction, Glenn’s research on laughter was featured in a second book published in 2013 by Bloomsbury Press called Studies of Laughter in Interaction, which he co-edited with linguist Elizabeth Holt. The volume contains 12 scholarly articles from different authors, each shedding light on an aspect of laughter across a variety of human interactions. This book was the subject of an extensive review by Scottish physician Gavin Francis in The New York Review of Books, a semi-monthly magazine featuring articles on literature, culture, economics, science and current affairs.
“Laughter is pervasive in human life, across cultures,” Francis wrote. “There is more variety in the laughs generated by one individual in different situations than there is between separate individuals in similar situations. It has physical, psychological, spiritual, and relational benefits. It is the cost- free medicine that can release endorphins helping us feel good, exercise our muscles and breathing like yoga, help us lighten moods and cope with problems more readily, and strengthen social bonds.
“This book could be read as a manual for those who find complex nonverbal communication bewildering, illuminating the startling complexity of everyday social interactions.”
Studies in Laughter in Interaction also sparked the interest of Atlas Obscura Editorial Fellow Christina Djossa, whose 2018 article explored code-switching — how people instinctively change how they express themselves across multiple social spaces.
“On one level, [the book] is a basic research question on how humans communicate – so contributing to knowledge,” Glenn said. “In a more applied way, it’s not like I teach people how to laugh, but there’s a lot of interesting research attesting to the value of laughter for physiological wellbeing, psychological wellbeing, relationship affiliation, and bonding after difficult moments.”
According to Glenn, people “laugh in ways that are sensitive to context” in a systematic way. In the case of someone getting tickled at a funeral, “you cover your mouth and you spit a little bit because you know you are not supposed to be laughing. You could call it code-switching, but it’s not about culture, it’s about situation.”
Using a collection of studies written by Glenn, Laughter in Interaction details how and why people laugh during conversation. He examines recordings and transcripts of people having real-life interactions to spotlight the finely detailed coordination of human laughter. Glenn exemplifies how laughter’s production and placement, relative to talk and other activities, provide unique information about its emergent meaning and accomplishments.
“We adapt our laughs to situations — the family table is one thing, the business dinner is another, the medical interview is another — and so laughs get shaped to those contexts. I think culture might well shape what you find laughable and then how the laughter gets produced,” Glenn said.
Glenn’s research studies how conversations transition from a single laugh to laughing together, how the matter of who laughs first implicates orientation to social activities and how interactants work out whether laughs are more affiliative or hostile.
A Laughing Matter
In his research method, conversation analysis, Glenn describes structure and pattern, and observes daily exchanges, including arguments, storytelling, greetings, flirtations, meetings, interviews – all the things that talk accomplishes and how people do it. In addition, he examines how people create identities and relationships through talk and laughter.
Laughter can be divided into three main “buckets,” he explains
“There are countless little, tiny ‘laugh particles’ through everyday interaction, usually by just one person, and they often mark that something problematic or delicate is going on, or the person is saying something they’re not fully committed to. People may laugh when they’re saying something critical, when they’re self-deprecating, when they’re self-praising, or when they’re producing a disagreeing response,” said Glenn.
The second bucket of laughter includes shared laughs, which are more likely rooted in humor. Extended shared laughs can become moments of celebration and affiliation. Their logical extreme takes the form of stand-up comedy and audiences laughing together.
The third bucket of laughter includes hostile and derisive laughs, the sort of laughs that accompany cruel teasing or insults — laughs that claim superiority. Of course, these categories can overlap and blur. “A laugh can be both affiliative and hostile, in that you can laugh with some people at other people,” Glenn said.
Glenn conducts scholarly research analyzing interaction, conflict, negotiation, and mediation; employment interviews; and laughter in everyday talk. Glenn’s research is reflected in his teaching, most recently through a course on positive communication, which studied laughter, humor and play, as well as positive leadership, dialogue, flow and nonviolence.