Humor as part of language performances
• “Every interacting social group develops, over time, a joking culture …”
Humor as part of group idioculture
“One can never feel a sense of acceptance and belong to a particular group until
one can understand its jokes” (Khemlani et al. 2006).
“As groups form, they develop known humorous themes that are returned to
repeatedly throughout group interaction” (Fine & de Soucey 2005).
Communities of practice
Refers to linguistic styles and cultural traditions of a group interaction
Found in almost every group is a set of repeated humorous and joking references
What does humor do for groups?
Gary Alan Fine and Michaela De Soucey (2005)
• Joking and humor are ways to organize in a social system that permits
interaction to proceed without public disharmony (Erving Goffman)
• Joking creates comfort in group life
• Joking maintains group relationships by building commonalities
• Smoothes interactions
• Creates norms of action or sets boundaries in contrast to those defined as
external to the group
• Successful joking is a response to shared concerns
• Ongoing joking differentiates group members, organizes status, creates a
social cartography of group life
• Joking helps cement distinctions between members of a group as individuals
are ranked on a set of relevant dimensions
• Often high status members have the right to joke at the expense of others
• Jokes smooth rough patches in conversations
• Socialization through embarrassment made tolerable by its jocular character.
(youtube examples of humor. Why are they funny?)
Why are these funny?
Grocery store musical
I love lunch
• Exposes conflicts
• Expresses what is taboo
• Allows forbidden exhibitionism
• A way to cope with stress and suffering
• Can be aggressive and build rapport at the same time
• Can be a form of gossip
• Enables people to “speak off the record”
Creates norms of action or sets boundaries in contrast to those defined as
external to the group
Joking maintains group relationships by building commonalities
Joking is embedded – it occurs within the context of an ongoing relationship.
Joking, as a general rule, does not occur between strangers. (Jocular pleasantries
may be directed to strangers)
To joke requires individuals who are aware of and are considerate of each others’
The relationship gives the joker the right to joke.
The relationship gives the joker the authority to get away with the joke.
Why is this funny? What kinds of forbidden exhibitionism is going on? What kinds
of commonalities are built and reinforced? What is being expressed that is
Studying humor in linguistic anthropology
You can look at keys, frames, power, gender, etc. etc.
Joking as historicized,
Joking as referential,
Joking as interactive
Freud (1928) claimed women do not need a sense of humor because they have
fewer strong feelings to repress.
Linguist George Lakoff said:
“Women can’t tell jokes – they’re bound to ruin the punchline, they mix up the
order and so on. Moreover, they don’t ‘get’ jokes. In short, women have no
sense of humor.”
• New studies show that women will recognize the joking interests of males
rather than vice-versa
• In the past, men did not have to understand women’s sense of humor.
• Study of male and female laughter in Malaysia (2006)
- Women used humor to show support
- Women tended to talk jokingly about their own appearance
- Women tended to laugh at self as form of bonding with other women
- Used laughter to reinforce group solidarity
- Used as a form of indirect gossiping
- Sexual jokes indirect and as test or puzzle for listeners to figure out
- A note of seriousness in humor
• Men used more wise cracks
• Men tended to talk jokingly about other people’s appearance
• Men tended to make fun of others, not self
• Insults were treated as a means of building solidarity
• Created absurd scenarios
• Men direct about sexual joking
• More formulaic jokes
• Performance based humor
• Harder to determine if men viewed joking as bonding
Study of male and female joking in Brazilian working-class neighborhood
(Claudia Fonseca 2001)
Guampudos – means cuckhold
Past studies in this area were usually by male researchers.
- Concluded that men fear women’s unruly conduct as a threat to their honor
- Concluded that because of machismo, women have no choice but to go along
with male sexual indiscretions
• men should dedicate themselves to supporting their wives and children
• Girls should be virgins until their wedding days and married women should
• Use of humor suggests another version of gender relations
Male fear of humiliation due to female betrayal
• Inferior job status exacerbates fear of female betrayal
• He will be thought of as tame or a willing cuckhold
Joking is the way that men are tried in the village
If woman is adulterous
• Husband’s options are to remain silent to prevent exposure to public ridicule
• Only an act of dramatic violence could ease the humiliation
• But there is not much violence reported in joking gossip
• Politics of joking
• No woman should brag publicly about her own exploits
• Her friends, sisters, aunts, mother etc. brag for her in joking gossip
• Women also make jokes to emphasize sexual virility of their male relatives
• Men joke about exploits or to insult each other concerning virility
• Everyone in the village makes jokes about adultery
• Only women generally name names
• In a negative sense, women who are in competition name each other as
adulterous –especially attacking sisters and daughters-in-law
• In a positive sense, women brag about their own relatives
Brazilian village humor
• Humor holds an important part in transmission of values from one generation
to the next
• Not all individuals adhere to hegemonic cultural patterns of male dominance
• Women are not generally stigmatized or discriminated against for adultery
• Men seem to suffer as much or more stigma than unfaithful wives
• To study joking, kidding and gossip reveals a great deal about power
relationships below the surface
Joking as instrument of power?
Examples of joking as ‘playing’ with power
- Public or hidden transcripts
- Group cohesion or identity
• Frames: Erving Goffman
Authentic frames are culture-specific and vary from one society to another.
Some types of framing might include:
• excusing oneself
• Poise and Face: to study face saving is to study the traffic rules of social
• Once someone takes on a self image expressed through face (reputation)
they will be expected to live up to it.
• The capacity to suppress and conceal shame during encounters with others.
• To sustain an impression for others that one has not lost face.
• Each culture provides a repertoire of face saving practices.
(Keys and frames for face saving performances) Examples:
• Protective maneuvers to show respect and politeness
• Explanations before an offensive act to say that others ought not be affronted
by the behavior about to take place.
• Tactful blindness (people pretend not to notice)
• The importance of face in different culture groups: Raymond Cohen
• U.S. and other Western countries are considered low-context societies.
• (Generally more individualistic)
• People can more often pick and choose groups to belong to.
• In these societies, individual rights supercede unquestioned duty to one's
family, clan, ethnic group, or nation.
• If one commits a social blunder as an adult, there is often more personal
embarrassment than group shame involved.
• Individualistic societies expect debate with an ideology of freedom of
• Communication is much less carefully watched than in collectivistic cultures,
where humiliation is to be avoided at all costs.
• High-context societies:
• include countries such as Korea, China, and Japan in Asia, Middle-Eastern
countries, and Latin American countries.
• (More collectivistic)
• Often more hierarchical and traditional societies
• Concepts of shame and honor are much more important.
• One’s behavior reflects on the whole group.
• High-context communication is primarily concerned with maintaining face
and group harmony.
• These communicators are concerned about losing face.
• They will usually employ evasiveness instead of explicit disagreement.
• … because being rebuffed could cause loss of face.
• People in high-context cultures usually dislike direct confrontation.
• For the most part people avoid expressing a clear "no."
Low-context negotiators often have trouble recognizing a "no" when a high-
context negotiator expresses a vague, non-binding form of an affirmative.
• Ways in which one can lose face in high context cultures include:
• a rebuffed overture
• exposure to personal insult
• exposure to a derogatory remark or disregard for one's status
• being forced to give up a cherished value
• making what may later be seen as an "unnecessary" concession
• failure to achieve goals
• revelation of personal inadequacy
• damage to a valued relationship
• The key difference to remember here is that high-context cultures want to
repair or build relationships while low-context cultures most often desire to
simply problem-solve and move on.
• If you examine face work as part of narrative or humor performances:
• What was the reason someone lost face?
• How important was it to the individual?
• How important was it to the group?
• What were the values implicit in the loss of face?
• How did people react?
• Did they help the individual regain her/his face?