The acceptable artificiality of fake laughter
We all “laugh out loud,” and “roll on the floor laughing,” but do we really mean it? We can “ah ha ha,” chortle, guffaw and “he he he” all we want, but laughs come off as artificial.Texting has become its own language, and while in our real-life social situations and in our digital reality we can text “LOLs, LAWLs and ROFLs,” it’s difficult to understand the true meaning behind the acronyms.
One must question why we feel the need to use these acronyms. Why do we even laugh? It might be more than finding something funny—there’s a psychological component to laughter that goes beyond humor.
Carolyn McGettigan, psychology professor at Royal Holloway University of London, said laughter is an important vocal signal in human interaction. She said our laughter begins in the early stages of our lives and is ever present in conversations and humorous situations.
“It plays a huge role in everyday conversation,” McGettigan said. “It is peppered throughout the speech that we use and it’s used as a signal of affiliation, a signal of positive experience and a signal of liking.”
McGettigan said we use laughter to show the person they are interacting with that this social experience is positive and enjoyable. However, through technology now, it is hard to differentiate if the enjoyment on one side is real. McGettigan said laughter is an affiliated signal, and fake laughter is being polite and a way of controlling our responses.
“The most extreme cases of laughter are cases that aren’t much under our control,” she said. “It can be argued, In some sense, we’re simulating this other, more intense, more spontaneous vocalization.”
For example, look at Jimmy Fallon’s infamous fake laughter on The Tonight Show. His forced laughter is meant to fill the room during awkward conversations with celebrities, but he has been criticized for being genuine. McGettigan said fake laughter can be a form of social benefit. For example Jimmy Fallon could do it to form a better connection with their audience.
“We can fake laughter in order to smooth the social interaction,” McGettigan said. “I have to be able to produce signs that are going to be convincing enough to the listeners in that group.”
Greg Bryant, associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at UCLA, said in a Washington Post article that it is easy for tell when someone is really laughing or not.
However, despite Bryant’s findings the normalization of fake laughter has pervaded other spheres of social life. Examples of acceptable of fake laughs can be found in television shows such as Friends and the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. “Canned laughter,” or a laugh track is used as a social cue, forces the audience to know when to laugh at a joke McGettigan said.
Sarah Larson, a contributing writer for The New Yorker, said she thinks fake laughter stems from nervousness in awkward social situations. When we hear a corny joke, we laugh to be polite, not because the joke was actually funny, she said.
“In real life, people laugh because of tension of all kinds,” Larson said. “The tension that humor generates, tension being released and the many kinds of tension that arise from social anxiety or just interactions.”
Larson said laughing digitally is even more awkward, because it is hard to tell if the laughter is real. We type “LOL!” but are we really laughing out loud?
“It’s really weird, a lot of times I’m texting with my young step sister, and she types a ton of ‘ha’s’ and it’s awesome because I’m like ‘ah I’m so funny,’” she said. “But then I’m like, ‘is she really laughing her head off?’”
Despite the ways we implore fake laughter evolving over time— the idea of sharing content has not changed and most have earned their hearty laughs from audiences. Larson said online comedy shows like Billy On the Street, Difficult People, as well as comedy specials with Aziz Ansari, Bo Burnham, and several others, have produced their share of authentic laughs.
“If you have a good voice and you’re funny, people will find you,” Larson said. “That wasn’t always the case when power was just centralized for a few magazines, networks, it’s more democratic.”
The artificiality of laughter has evolved from laugh tracks, to comic strips, to LOLs and ROFLs, and is present in everyday conversation. It’s a way of breaking the ice, tip-toeing around awkwardness and it creates social benefit for oneself. Although fake laughter is pretty common, hearing a real, authentic chuckle makes conversations and social situations a whole lot better.
We’ve been laughing since the beginning of time, but before acronyms to convey laughter came about, Larson said we began to see laughter actually written out in the 1950s. For example, in the Peanuts comic, Charlie Brown and his friends would laugh, and it would be spelled out. Laughter could be spelled out in numerous ways, and Larson said each laughter onomatopoeia has a different meaning.
In Larson’s article, ‘ha ha’ is a “respectful laugh,” while ‘hehe’ is more cute and giddy. This can pertain to actual laughter or digital. Overall, the laughter you choose to express can give off a certain message.
Ana Borruto is a third-year journalism major who wants you to think twice the next time you type an initialism. You can email them at [email protected].