Bad jokes really can cause social harm. New research found that failed attempts at humor can provoke surprisingly rude responses, with the harshest reactions coming from friends and family.
To test the effect of off-pitch humor, Nancy Bell, an applied linguist at Washington State University, used a real doozy:
"What did the big chimney say to the little chimney? (Nothing. Chimneys can’t talk.)"
"I found it on the internlauet by Googling 'bad jokes,'" Bell told LiveScience. "We piloted this joke to make sure it was really bad."
Bell and her assistants watched 186 people as they were told this joke by strangers, friends or family. They found that many people didn't hold back in expressing their displeasure at the lame humor, responding with phrases ranging from the mild, "That’s not funny," all the way to downright offensive and profane retorts. And the worst offenders were close friends and relatives of the bad-joke teller.
Twist the knife
Bell said she was surprised by the rudeness of responses. "I thought, well, everybody’s had the experience of trying to be funny and having it not be funny," she said. "I wouldn’t expect that people would twist the knife and make you feel even worse."
But that's exactly what many did.
People responded with insults, sarcasm, fake laughter and a host of other comebacks. These harsh responses might stem from the fact that jokes are usually an interruption to normal conversation, Bell said. When a joke is actually funny, listeners don't mind the disruption because there is a payoff: humor. Without the humor, listeners may become annoyed at the lame crack.
Another reason listeners may get angry is that a bad joke implies an insult to the audience's sense of humor, if the joke-teller really thought the listener would appreciate the bad joke.
"It's offensive to them," Bell said. "It means, you think I’m an idiot, huh?"
As for why people save their worst bile for those they really love — it may be to protect themselves from more bad jokes. If someone you spend a lot of time with has a penchant for annoying humor, it is in your own self-interest to nip that in the bud so you don't have to be subjected to more in the future, the thinking goes.
"You have a long term investment in that relationship, so you want to shut that down," Bell said.
The new research confirms how complicated and subtle the social sphere of humor is. For example, there may be times when bad humor can actually serve a useful purpose.
"Maybe telling a bad joke could present you as someone who is approachable, not all high and mighty, or perhaps show that you have confidence," Bell said.
These intriguing results are one reason why Bell thinks it's important to study not just successful humor as a means of communication, but also failed attempts.
"You can't have a complete theory of humor without understanding how it fails also," she said. "The study of humor in general was neglected for a long time — it wasn't thought of as serious academic work. But it's another important part of interaction."
Bell's research is set to be published in the Journal of Pragmatics.
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