In a recent blog post, author Jenny Lawson compiled stories of social mishap – mostly harmless though often horrifying when they happened to people who stumbled over their own words.
"I've told a coworker, ‘Love You,' before the end of a phone call," was one example, originally shared on Twitter. Another came from a commenter whose friend thanked him for coming to her husband's funeral. "My reply?" he wrote. "Any time."
I chuckled at the first few. By the tenth, tears streamed down my cheeks. My stomach muscles ached from laughter. When I shared the link on Facebook, friends told me they, too, ended up in hysterics.
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Why are posts like these so funny to us?
Humor researchers have conflicting opinions about why things make us laugh. But one idea is that humor can arise when something violates our ideas of identity and normalcy, while simultaneously seeming safe and playful. In the case of awkward social interactions, saying the wrong thing can represent a threat to cultural norms that ultimately, don't hurt anybody.
These harmless threats, or "benign violations," often become even funnier when we share them with others.
"Humor occurs when a person phrases something as a violation that threatens our sense of how things should be," says Caleb Warren, a humor researcher at Texas A&M University in College Station. "Yet, we see that violation as benign, OK, acceptable, normal or correct."
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"Laughing with someone shows you will probably get along with them," he adds. "It can bond people together who share that humorous experience."
Laughter is a funny thing that has long perplexed researchers, in part because it unhinges us. Overtaken by a laughing spell, our hearts race. We breathe more quickly. Our muscles weaken. We make loud noises. And we become less aware of what's happening around us. That makes it a potentially dangerous behavior from the perspective of evolution, turning us into convulsive prey, easy targets for hungry predators.
Because laughter has persisted despite its costs, says Thomas Flamson, an anthropologist at the University of California, Davis, it must be important. "All laughter is a little disabling," he says. "We have to assume there's some functional benefit to having an involuntary, debilitating response to some other person putting ideas in your head."
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In his view, the capacity to find things funny works as a social signal that facilitates alliances, connecting people by revealing that they share nuanced and meaningful knowledge. In order to "get" the joke embedded in Lawson's blog post, for example, readers need to both share the experience of a public embarrassment and know what the people who blundered should have said instead.
Another way to understand the post's humor is through the lens of benign violations, Warren says, a theory that, he argues, can also explain why many different kinds of situations can be funny, but why specific things may be funny only sometimes or in some culture or to some people.
Tickling may make a baby laugh, for example, because it resembles an attack but happens in a playful and loving way at the hands of a parent. But it won't be funny if the tickler is a sinister stranger, making the situation no longer benign.
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Likewise, Warren and colleague Peter McGraw wrote in a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, telling a baker he has "nice buns" is funny because it can be perceived as both a taboo and as a reasonable thing to say. "Nice bread," on the other hand, lacks the violation. And "nice butt" is missing the harmless part. "Nice buns," in other words, is both wrong and okay at the same time.
Humor researcher Gil Greengross remembers a potluck he went to after moving from Israel to the United States for graduate school. Everyone was supposed to bring a dish. "I was assuming they meant that we needed to bring dishes, so I brought plastic utensils and glasses," says Greengross, of Aberystwyth University in Wales. "Well, as it happens, this was not the kind of dish I was suppose to bring. Imagine that!"
Lawson's blog post also illustrates the power of humor to help people cope with negative experiences. Even major tragedies and natural disasters can make people laugh, though research shows that it takes some time before people can laugh about the hardest stuff. Then, it can be cathartic. And it can bond us together.
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At a bar the other night, I sat with four people. I knew some better than others. We started discussing Lawson's post and soon, we were sharing similar stories from our own lives. One friend described a time that he'd inadvertently hugged a new co-worker by mistake. Another said she'd once left a voicemail that she ended as if she were writing an e-mail, by saying, "Best, Michelle."
Laughter ensued. If the theorists are right, we're better friends for it.