II: Interpersonal relationships



Uniting and dividing in personal interactions: Four key functions of humor in communication

John Meyer

Humor pervades communication. It can be found in all settings and all types of messages. In so many conversations, one sees a common temptation to try for humor or to respond with humor. Often, parties seem to seek a balance between serious and humorous communication—as one becomes dominant, people will seek or slip in a dose of the other. Humor can be found in all situations—even those considered serious or threatening. Humor has the potential for enjoyment, even as emotions like pleasure, fear, or anger could overwhelm that sense. Yet people can still joke or find humor in fearful or tragic circumstances. Since humor can be found anywhere in communication, it is worth exploring further as to what it does for us in communication, or what functions it serves.

As communication develops, a motivation for variety or entertainment often manifests in the form of humor. People generally want routine patterns they can recognise, but also seek stimulation by novel patterns or ideas. These new patterns can be confusing or threatening, but they can also serve as an exhilarating puzzle or problem to solve. Humor serves as a source of variety that, in the end, poses no threat or harm. Humor involves a ‘mirth experience’ (Martin & Ford, 2018) that engages forms of ambiguity in the mind. One’s mind needs a sense of expectations, or a planned pattern, along with some sort of violation of that expected pattern for humor to exist (Veatch, 1998). Some perception of change is also necessary for perceiving humor. This could be referred to as a ‘pleasant psychological shift’ (Morreall, 1983). Enough change must be perceived to be noteworthy as opposed to being trivial, but not too much so as to be perceived as alarming or dangerous. Thus, according to the benign violation theory of humor, a violation must be perceived as not harmful, and thus benign, and must be in mind simultaneously with the sense of a normal pattern (McGraw & Warren, 2010). Perceiving such benign changes to expected life patterns leads to experiencing humor (McGraw & Warner, 2014), and can allow humans to be more creative and adaptable. Humor use and appreciation have multiple benefits for us, and in general, have been found to improve communication, enhance learning, and promote a sense of social presence (Dormann & Biddle, 2009).

In essence, humor can be defined as a benign pattern violation, whether communicated through a series of events or through symbols that create messages (McGraw & Warner, 2014). ‘A welcome disruption to the life pattern may indeed serve, then, as an apt descriptor of humor’ (Meyer, 2015, p. 29). Such pattern violations, when not threatening and recognised as strikingly ditferent from expectations, provide for an amusing reaction. This reaction, often pleasant, becomes a desired stimulant for more such entertainment through similar events or communication. Humor, thus, becomes sought out and welcome as an entertaining diversion during ongoing communication or tasks. Like any variation, though, it may not always be pleasant. Being the subject of humor may not be an enjoyable situation; similarly, not understanding humor that others see can be similarly alienating. One may understand the humor attempt but view it as an attack or a put-down—a serious event. Alternatively, one may not understand a particular social or symbolic pattern and how it was violated, thereby not ‘getting’ the joke. In spite of that variation, however, humans enjoy understanding and sharing humor with others. We seek and value humor across cultures. Clearly, ‘having a sense of humor’ is viewed as one of the most valued personal qualities in those people we live, work, and otherwise communicate with.

The power of humor inherent in its being desired or sought in so many settings makes humor more compelling. We seek it, we enjoy it, we communicate it, but how does it really work? What can humor do for us? Why is it so pervasive in our messages? It can be found in all sorts of communication, in all sorts of situations ranging from comic to serious and varies widely by topic. Yet it seems to be a human ‘universal,’ occurring in all cultures and settings. There must be some commonalities or constants one can expect from humor. Indeed, it turns out that humor does, among other purposes, reveal social boundaries, communication norms, and relationship status.

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