Communication Functions of Humor: Uniting and Dividing

Humor has a capacity both to unite and divide. Groups share in the understanding of humor and are drawn to its expression. People form connections through mutual laugher at something. Others, however, might not understand the humor perceived by some or take such humor as a put-down or threat. ‘Laughter forms a bond and simultaneously draws a line’ (Lorenz, 1963, p. 253). ‘In-groups’ get the humor, and understand and appreciate it. ‘Out-groups,’ though, fail to perceive or understand the humor that others may see. Alternatively, they may understand the humor but view it as a serious verbal attack that threatens, rather than deserving to be viewed humorously. A sense of key importance to the issue, as essential to their identity, can lead people to take discussions of or references to the issue as serious, having a high level of ego-involvement in the issue (Meyer, 2015). Consider the potential varying responses to the following post spread around the internet depending on one’s religious affiliation:

The Reverend Billy Powell tells of a time early in his career when he arrived in a small town to preach a sermon. Wanting to mail a letter, he asked a young boy where the post office was. When the boy told him, Reverend Powell thanked him and said, “Ifyou’ll come to the Baptist church this evening, you can hear me telling everyone how to get to Heaven.” The boy said, “I don’t think I’ll be there. You don’t even know your way to the post office.”

Some who are Baptists or strong Christians may find the story outrageous and not funny, knowing that the post office and heaven are completely different places and concepts and that learning about getting to heaven is a crucial task. Yet, others may find it a funny twist on their religious belief. Non-religious people may enjoy the implied put-down of religious belief, while others may just laugh at the enhanced perception of the young boy. Paradoxically, humor can simultaneously unite a group even while setting it apart from a teased other. One can see humor even when someone gets angry about an issue. The angered person takes the issue quite seriously, and thus feels threatened and responds with anger or other strong emotions, while another, who takes the issue less seriously, may find still more humor in the dramatic or angry reactions. Thus, some may find unity through humor even as its use divides others who do not ‘get it’ or are outraged and angered by it and do not find it benign due to the topic or event in question being perceived as more serious.

Divisive humor can be distinguished from unifying humor by which aspect is emphasised. Given that humor requires a perception of an expected pattern along with its simultaneous violation, stress on either the desired pattern or its violation as dominant sets the stage for humor’s function in communication (Meyer, 2000). Stressing what is normal, or the expected pattern leads to a unifying function. ‘Unifying humor involves the ingratiating, rewarding functions that people enjoy the most, as the comfortable, secure, expected norms are highlighted as dominant’ (Meyer, 2015, p. 42). Stress the violation more, however, and division through humor is likely to occur. If the violation of an expected moral order serves as the key focus of the humor, a social division is likely to follow. As humans communicate, we can pursue humor use for these socially unifying and dividing functions. Humor can pull a group together by engaging similarities and enhancing unity, or it can highlight differences in perceptions or expectations as noteworthy, humorous, but a source of division.

Four key functions of humor can be delineated, moving from high levels of unity to high levels of division: identification, clarification, enforcement, and differentiation (Meyer, 2000). Research in organisations and classrooms suggests that unifying humor, or the more positive functions enacted by identification and clarification, associates with higher morale and learning outcomes, while the divisive or more negative humor styles involving enforcement or differentiation associate with the opposite outcomes (Banas, Dunbar, Rodriguez, & Liu, 2011; Wanzer, Frymier, & Irwin, 2010). Varied measures of personal humor styles have found similar differences between prosocial styles, that enhance morale and unity, and antisocial ones that obtain humor from the putdown of self or others (Martin, Puhlik-Doris, Larsen, Gray, & Weir, 2003).

According to Martin et al.’s (2003) humor style model, persons use humor in certain ways that affect personal relationships. Self-enhancing humor involves benign uses of humor to enhance the self, and affiliative humor enhances relationships with others. These prosocial styles fall into the identification and clarification functions detailed below. Conversely, self-defeating humor serves to improve relationships with others at the expense of oneself, often through self- deprecating humor. Such humor demotes oneself yet may be benign and prosocial toward others. Enforcement or differentiation functions are likely involved to put oneself down in relation to others. Aggressive humor, though, is the most antisocial style as it enhances the self at the expense of others and is most akin to the differentiation function explored here. Damage to interpersonal relationships is quite likely for those invoking high levels of aggressive humor. The latter antisocial style leads to lower morale and lost productivity, while prosocial humor use leads to its benefits that people seek throughout many settings and forms of communication.

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