Begun in 2007, the WSU research on failed humor supports earlier findings suggesting a lot of face-saving goes on among all parties whenever a joke is told. But the new research also demonstrates that the failure to deliver on the promise of humor can lead to surprisingly harsh responses from listeners – particularly when those listeners are family members or close friends.
applied linguist, assistant professor
In fact, Bell said the verbal responses of nearly half of those subjected to an intentionally bad joke in the WSU study ranged somewhere between rude and downright offensive.
“The predominant verbal reaction to failed humor in our study was oriented exclusively toward attacking the speaker,” Bell said. “These were basically attacks intended to result in the social exclusion or humiliation of the speaker – punctuated on occasion with profanity, a nasty glare or even a solid punch to the arm.”
Bell attributes this tendency to want to “punish” the offender when an attempt at humor goes awry to a numbers of factors, all of which relate to the assumptions and conventions that normally govern our interactions with others.
To begin with, she said, humor – and particularly joke telling – often disrupts the natural flow of conversation.
“Ordinarily we tolerate that disruption because the payoff is entertaining,” Bell explained. “But when we pause for a joke that fails to deliver an entertaining payoff, it’s just a disruption, which is upsetting to us.”
Jokes that fail to deliver on the promise of humor are also a violation of a social contract, or set of unspoken rules we share with others about how we are going to treat one another, she said. Punishing the joke teller can be understood as a way of acknowledging that contract violation and discouraging the speaker from displaying similar behavior in the future.
Another reason is that failed humor – and non-spontaneous jokes in particular – insult the listener by suggesting that he or she might actually find it funny, Bell said. When it isn’t, the insult is complete, and a nasty response is one way of saying to the speaker “Do not do that to me again.”
But why is it that intimates, such as spouses, siblings and long-time friends, are the ones most likely to treat an errant jokester the most harshly?
Bell said it’s essentially because – unlike people you work with or know only casually – family and close friends know they’re the ones who are stuck with you.
“With intimates you have a long-term investment, she said. “Your sister can’t fire you, so your mean response to her lousy joke says ‘Guess what, I don’t want to spend the next 10 years listening to those kind of jokes.'”
In addition to intimacy, Bell said age can be a major factor in determining how readily and how harshly your ill-conceived efforts at humor are attacked.
“The younger you are and the closer you are in age to your failed humorist, the more likely you are to attack,” Bell said.
The dual influence of youth and intimacy in determining who is most likely to turn on you when humor fails may also help explain something most parents know already. When it comes to lame humor – just as with just about anything else in life. – your own kids are apt to be among your most vocal critics.