Glenn studies laughter in new book

By Dan O'Brien
July 16, 2013

Glenn

Communication Studies Professor Phillip Glenn examines the science behind laughter in Studies of Laughter in Interaction, which was recently released.

Communication Studies Professor Phillip Glenn, interim dean of the School of Communication, has been studying the science of laughter for three decades. He recently co-authored and edited Studies of Laughter in Interaction (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), which examines the human expression that is commonly overlooked in academic research.

“This volume presents a collection of original studies revealing the highly ordered, complex, and important phenomenon of laughter in everyday interactions,” reads a description of the scholarly book. “Building on 40 years of conversation analytic research, the authors… [demonstrate] that laughter is not simply a reaction to humor but is used in a fascinating array of different ways.”

Q: What was involved in co-authoring this book?

Glenn: I’ve been studying laughter for nearly 30 years, from my doctoral research at the University of Texas to a number of articles and an earlier book, Laughter in Interaction (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

I love to laugh and make others laugh. Some of our most meaningful, powerful moments in social life involve laughter. So I started analyzing real-life, everyday conversations, job interviews, and other materials, finding moments when laughter pops up. I created detailed transcripts that capture the sounds of laughter and its placement relative to talk. I wrote up analyses of collections of similar moments. It turns out that laughter is not this uncontrolled, involuntary response to humor. Laughter is organized, precisely placed, and follows distinct patterns.

I also became absorbed in the topic from an interest in play and playfulness. I came to play from deep interest in Shakespeare, the theatrical metaphor (“All the world’s a stage”), and Erving Goffman’s dramatistic research, especially The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Those resonated with me.

Q: Can you provide an example from your book on how laughter is not simply a reaction to humor?

Glenn: I have one instance in which an applicant in a job interview is asked, “Any other questions?” She answers, “No.” But the “no” is preceded by a vocalized pause and followed by laughter. On a transcript, it looks like this: “Um, no. Eh huhhh.” Her laugh is not responding to humor but marking the insufficiency of her own answer.

The chapter of the book I authored is an empirical study of moments like the one above, where interviewees laugh at their own talk to manage something problematic or delicate. It also includes a meditation on what nervous laughter means. Generally in my research, I stay out of people’s heads. I don’t try to claim that this person is nervous, or meant to do something, or whatever. In the chapter, however, I argue that what laypersons might think of as nervous laughs are imprecise and carry out important interactional work. They aren’t just emotional leakage.

Q: What is the most important notion or finding you came away with after conducting your research?

Glenn: Laughter is an ambiguous, ubiquitous, and incredibly versatile bit of our communicative repertoire!

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