Humor as a Double-Edged Sword: Four Functions of Humor in Communication

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Communication Studies


The compelling power of humor makes it a recurrent topic for research in many fields, including communication. Three theories of humor creation emerge in humor research: the relief theory, which focuses on physiological release of tension; the incongruity theory, singling out violations of a rationally learned pattern; and the superiority theory, involving a sense of victory or triumph. Each theory helps to explain the creation of different aspects of humor, but each runs into problems explaining rhetorical applications of humor. Because each theory of humor origin tries to explain all instances of humor, the diverging communication effects of humor remain unexplained. Humor's enactment leads to 4 basic functions of humor in communication. Two tend to unite communicators: the identification and the clarification functions. The other 2 tend to divide 1 set of communicators from others: the enforcement and differentiation functions. Exploration of these effects-based functions of humor will clarify understanding of its rise in messages. Humor use unites communicators through mutual identification and clarification of positions and values, while dividing them through enforcement of norms and differentiation of acceptable versus unacceptable behaviors or people. This paradox in the functions of humor in communication as, alternately, a unifier and divider, allows humor use to delineate social boundaries.

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Communication Theory





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