Parents of newborn babies learn quickly there are many ways babies cry. One type means a baby is hungry, another cry says the baby has a dirty diaper. Then there’s the cry that signals the baby just wants attention.
Parents don’t put as much thought into what their child’s laugh means (unless it’s obvious they’re fighting with their siblings). In fact, very few people consider the differences in laughter at all.
According to the late Robert Provine, who was a laughter expert and professor emeritus of neurobiology of psychology at the University of Maryland, laughter is specifically a social structure, something that connects humans with one another in a profound way [source: Provine].
According to his findings, people are 30 percent more likely to laugh in a social setting that warrants it than when alone with humor-inducing media [source: Provine]. That means that you’re more likely to laugh with friends while watching a comedy together than when you’re watching the same show or movie by yourself.
Though there are many ways to laugh, from giggles to guffaws and chuckles to cackles, it turns out that we humans laugh for many reasons, some of them odd. And it’s more than just the latest episode of “Saturday Night Live” that has us doubled over; 90 percent of why we laugh has nothing to do with somebody telling a joke [source: Trump].
So what are some of the different types and reasons for all the laughter?
10: Etiquette Laughter
At the end of a long day, you find yourself in the elevator with your boss. Instead of talking up your latest accomplishments, though, you find yourself laughing at everything he says.
Though you may think you sounded like a fool, you probably did just fine. People rely on laughter to get along with others, so whether we’re with our boss or friends, we tend to laugh at things that just aren’t funny.
In a study of laughter episodes, Provine found that people tend to laugh at perfectly bland statements like “Can I join you?” or “See you later” [source: Provine]. Laughter could have developed in our ancestors before full speech, so the sound is merely a way to communicate and show agreement.
And if you’re trying to ascend the corporate ladder, you’re not the only one laughing at the boss. We tend to laugh with anyone who can help us out, which is why a group of undergraduate students may guffaw at a professor’s bad joke, while a job applicant’s attempts at humor may fall flat with those who are already gainfully employed.
9: Contagious Laughter
Imagine you’re out for dinner with a group of friends. Someone tells a joke and gets one person laughing, which gets a second person laughing, and so on. Is catching laughter like catching a cold? It’s very likely.
Provine found in one experiment that nearly half of his 128 undergraduate students giggled on first response to a simulated laugh [source: Provine]. And they did this despite knowing the source to be an artificial laugh-simulator.
According to Provine, contagious laughter raises the possibility that humans have laugh detectors. In other words, people are made to respond with laughter on hearing laughter itself, much like the mystery of spreading a yawn.
8: Nervous Laughter
There are times when we need to project dignity and control, like during presentations to the CEO or during a funeral. Unfortunately, these are the times when uncontrollable nervous laughter is likely to strike.
During times of anxiety, we often laugh in a subconscious attempt to reduce stress and calm down. It’s sort of a mature defense mechanism, though it usually just makes things more awkward.
Nervous laughter is often considered fake laughter and is often a go-to in high-stress and high-anxiety situations. Laughing, even nervously, can help ease some of that stress. But you don’t want to develop a habit of it. Inappropriate laughter can cause others disapproval, and make you even more stressed out than you were before.
7: Belly Laughter
Belly laughter is considered the most honest type of laughter. It may also be the hardest type to experience. Why? Because we have to find something truly hilarious before we’ll let go with the kind of laughter that has us clutching our bellies and gasping for air.
Of course, that’s not the only description for true belly laughter; as you might guess, we all laugh differently. In a study conducted by Vanderbilt University, researchers found that men are more likely to grunt or snort at something they find funny, while women let loose with giggles and chuckles [source: Vanderbilt].
It’s good to take note of what tickles your funny bone, however, because it just might save your life. In the 1979 book, “Anatomy of an Illness,” Norman Cousins writes how he used laughter to fight terminal illness.
“Ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep,” Cousins wrote [source: Colburn]. Cousins turned to the Marx Brothers and “Candid Camera” and experienced a full recovery. Cousins died in 1990, nearly 11 years after he wrote the book.
6: Silent Laughter
Those of us who work in open office settings may think that silent laughter is a skill we’ve perfected. Mindfully practicing silent laughter, though, can have real benefits because it involves the same type of deep breathing that comes with belly laughter.
Cheryl Ann Oberg works as a therapeutic clown and teaches sick kids the art of silent laughter. She told Canadian Living laughing silently has enabled the kids to fall back asleep when they wake from bad dreams [source: Van Dyk]. The children get the calming benefits of the rhythmic exhalations without waking their roommates.
Silent laughter is also practiced in laughter yoga and laughter therapy, where it’s often called joker’s laughter. To try it on your own, freeze your face into a smile like the Joker of Batman fame, then let your belly do the work of pushing air in and out as if you are laughing out loud.
5: Stress-relieving Laughter
Let’s face it, life can be tough sometimes. Whether you’re on a tight deadline with the boss breathing down your neck or you’re sitting in rush-hour traffic and your car’s A/C is on the fritz, the end of a workday doesn’t mean everything’s peachy keen. Muscles still tight? It’s a sign you’re still carrying the stress of the day.
Stress is one of the most important reasons to find something humorous. Laughter is a sure cure for stress [source: Van Dyk].
Stress builds tension in the human body, and that tension has to go somewhere. Usually it’s the muscles.
So what to do? Yes, you could get a massage, but have you ever considered a good laugh? Stress-relieving laughter can encompass many forms, but it’s usually found in an outburst, much like belly laughing.
4: Pigeon Laughter
Say you’re out for a walk with a friend when something falls from the sky: pigeon droppings. You’re splattered, but your friend is untouched. This event is anything but funny to you, yet your friend can’t stop laughing. Is this pigeon laughter?
Not quite, unless your friend is laughing in a very specific way. Pigeon laughter, which is often practiced in laughter therapy or laughter yoga, involves laughing without opening your mouth. By keeping your lips sealed, the laughter produces a humming sound, much like the noises a pigeon makes.
It’s also been compared to the humming of bees, so if you’re still angry at those darn pigeons for dropping poop on you, feel free to call it bees’ laughter.
3: Snorting Laughter
When you aren’t actively trying to practice the art of silent laughter, odds are some sound will occur when something strikes your funny bone. Most laughter is, after all, a string of vocal ha-has or ho-hos.
But what if you’re one of the roughly 25 percent of women or 33 percent of men who laugh through the nose? Then you’d be a snorter [source: Vanderbilt].
We all knew the kid in elementary school, the one who blew milk out his nose when the class clown cracked jokes in the cafeteria. You can guess his kind of laughter.
If this is you, you’re either blowing air out or sucking it in through the nose when you laugh. There’s nothing wrong with this, but you may want to drink in sips for those times when your friends try to catch you off guard with a new joke.
2: Canned Laughter
No, this next type of laughter isn’t something you find on a grocery store isle. Canned laughter is another term for what’s commonly referred to as the “laugh track.” Canned laughter is real laughter, it just happens to be laughter that’s recorded and added to the soundtrack of a television show.
But canned laughter works. A 2019 study in the journal Current Biology found that even the worst jokes (and we mean bad ones) got bigger laughs when they included canned laughter. But with the rise of the internet, viewers have grown much savvier and realize these laughs are there to manipulate our emotions. And because of those reasons alone, most sitcoms today don’t use the laugh track.
1: Cruel Laughter
Your mom probably told you “It’s not nice to laugh at someone else’s expense.” Unfortunately, whether you were the one laughing or the one being laughed at, you probably broke her rule at some point in your life.
We may think of cruel laughter as insensitive and out of touch, but it’s been part of society a long time [source: Morreall]. In medieval times, there was a widespread practice of insulting via poetry known as flyting. The most famous example is “The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie,” which is the first known instance of a poop-related insult and the F-word. Surely laughter also ensued.
Originally Published: Jun 4, 2009
Laughter Types FAQ
What is nervous laughter called?
In the middle of a serious situation, where the environment is tense and everyone is on the edge of their seats, you have a sudden urge to laugh. This phenomenon is known as incongruous emotion, which entails a burst of nervous laughter.
What are the types of laughter?
Some types of laughter include the belly laugh, chortle, cachinnation, chuckle, bray and giggle.
How do you describe a laugh?
Laughter can be anything that makes you want to throw your head back and express your glee in a way you see fit. It can be infectious, unrestrained, maniacal, guttural, sarcastic, triumphant, ironical or high-pitched, depending on the situation.
What is the best kind of laughter?
The most genuine kind of laughter is the belly laugh, where a person tends to express their glee wholeheartedly.
How do you express laughter in text?
To describe laughter in text form, people can use words like “haha” or “hehe.” Words like “lol,” “lmao” and “rofl” can also be used to express laughter.
Lots More Information
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