By J. Adrian Aumen, College of Arts & Sciences

Nancy-BellPULLMAN, Wash. – The phrase “just kidding” is more than a way to escape a failed attempt at humor. Research has found it serves at least four distinct functions and plays an important role in maintaining relationships.

“Intuitions about how we use language are quite poor, which makes this kind of systematic, empirical inquiry necessary,” said Nancy Bell, associate professor of English at Washington State University. “Often, as in this study, unexpected and even counterintuitive functions of language are revealed.

“Gaining a better understanding of how people use and interpret phrases like ‘just kidding’ helps inform our understanding of language itself and how human interactions work,” she said. “Our findings can be used for practical applications such as improving professional communication, language instruction and intercultural communication.”

Bell and colleagues analyzed 1,200 instances of “just kidding” written or spoken by a wide range of people in a wide range of circumstances. Read a pdf of the study from the Journal of Pragmatics at https://s3.wp.wsu.edu/uploads/sites/609/2016/01/just-kidding-research.pdf.

Pre-empting repercussions

“We found the most common use (70 percent) of ‘just kidding’ was to inoculate the speaker against possible negative reactions to humor that might seem unfunny, inappropriate or offensive,” Bell said.

If a speaker left no time for response before asserting “just kidding,” it was classified as inoculation.

Take Rush Limbaugh, for example. When the conservative radio personality made fun of the tie worn by one of his guests who was a member of the military, the famously aggressive host immediately shielded himself from his audience’s likely negative reaction with a quick “I’m only kidding.”

Repair of failed humor

In the second-most-common use of “just kidding,” speakers did leave time to respond, but the response – or lack of one – made it clear the attempt at humor or play had failed.

Bell, who recently published a book about failed humor, expected the “repair of failed humor” function to be the number one reason people say “just kidding” in conversation. But it accounted for less than 12 percent.

In fact, it was the overwhelming prevalence of the inoculation function that roused her curiosity and set the broader research project in motion.

“I noticed that people say ‘just kidding’ even before giving a chance to respond or to recognize their humor has failed. They’re obviously not repairing, so I thought some other things (inoculation, as it turned out) must be going on,” she said.

By analyzing the data qualitatively, Bell’s team also turned up two additional functions of the phrase, which they dubbed “return to serious” and “set up a new joke.”

To revert or subvert?

comedy-drama-masksAbout 8 percent of the instances of “just kidding” were efforts to steer the conversation back to a serious or nonplayful frame (return to serious). Another 6 percent served to thwart expectations and extend the previous joke.

“With this function, a speaker uses ‘just kidding’ to set up an echoed or enhanced version of the original joke,” Bell said. The hearer is essentially tricked into assuming “just kidding” signals the retraction or inoculation against a risky or offensive jest, but it has just the opposite effect.

For example, on the American television show “Saturday Night Live,” comedian Norm MacDonald delivered a joke that disparaged women, then said: “For those of you hissing at that joke, it should be noted that that joke was written by a woman.”

As audience groans and laughter increased, he added: “Nah, I’m just kidding. We don’t hire women.”

Anticipating repair, inoculation or a return to seriousness after the sexist joke, the audience was unprepared for MacDonald’s expansion of the remarks he had just ostensibly retracted.

“This function subverts the more typical understanding of ‘just kidding’ in ways that allow a speaker to purposefully flout conversational expectations,” Bell said.

Revealing language strategies

The reason people choose one strategy over another may be related to the type of humor, level of aggression or degree of intimacy between the kidder and audience. Timing – such as delayed feedback to blog posts – could also influence choices.

People who use “just kidding” to regain a serious tone may be signaling that they consider their own jokes extraneous to the conversation’s greater goals, the researchers said. And those who use the phrase to set up a new joke aren’t necessarily neglecting rapport: If violating behavioral expectations enriches the shared humor, rapport could be enhanced.

Viewed as a whole, the four functions of “just kidding” identified in the study align well along the continuum of rapport management, the researchers said. The inoculation and repair functions serve mostly positive, affiliative ends, working to smooth and maintain relationships.

The “return to serious” function has a more neutral effect, largely dependent on the situation and intent.

The “set up a new joke” function seems to pose the highest potential to backfire by subverting expectations and escalating potentially offensive humor. But it also could strongly influence positive rapport by inviting hearers to revisit the initial humor – and maybe laugh at themselves – delivering more laughs for everyone.

Humor in scholarship

Bell’s research interests focus on conversational humor, language play and linguistic creativity, especially with respect to second language users. At WSU, she teaches courses in linguistics, teaching English as a second language and academic literacy for students who use English as a second language.

Her recent book, “We Are Not Amused: Failed Humor in Interaction,” (De Gruyter Mouton, 2015) represents the first comprehensive study of failed humor, placing it in the broader category of miscommunication. The text examines the strategies both speakers and hearers use to avoid and manage failure and highlights humor’s critical role in social identity and relationship management.

Bell also coauthored, “Humor in the Classroom: A Guide for Language Teachers and Educational Researchers,” (Routledge, 2015) about the social and cognitive benefits that humor and language bring to classroom discourse and additional language learning.