Uniting and Dividing In Personal Interactions: Four Key Functions of Humor In Communication

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When humans communicate, the temptation to engage in and respond to humor is clear. People look for smiles and laughter to understand social boundaries, communication norms, and the potential for an ongoing relationship. The positive responses to humor reinforce mutual and fun communication in relationships. However, discomfort from being laughed at or not understanding what others find funny suggests an alienating and divisive function of humor. Humor use thus falls along a continuum ranging from unifying, satisfying humor to dividing, uncomfortable humor. The identification function of humor is the most unifying, serving to strengthen personal or group relationships. Both parties understand and approve of the humorous incident. The clarification function serves to make a point in a memorable, unique, and therefore funny way. The communicators may see an issue in a fresh way, and both agree to a funny perspective. The enforcement function serves notice that one has violated social norms in some way, often through teasing or similar pointed remarks. Both parties may laugh, but at least one is aware of some implicit criticism that may need to be addressed eventually. With the differentiation function, some openly laugh at another who is clearly in violation of some social expectation or desired pattern. This is the most divisive function of humor. All such functions of humor, however, serve to enhance creativity by communicating to see aspects of reality in new and unexpected ways. In the end, the major function served by all instances of humor may be to play.

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The Social Psychology of Humor

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