August 11, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s not “laughing out loud” any more. Or not only “laughing out loud.” The meaning has seeped out of that narrow box and is now broader and thinner. LOL is a generic sign of connection.*

“Lol creates a comfort zone by calling attention to sentiments held in common.”  (John McWhorter in the New York Times.)

I have a  hunch that this LOL-as-connection is a not guy thing. I don’t know the research on texting and gender, but I would expect that it is mostly women who are dropping these LOLs into their texts. 

Laughter itself – the kind you hear, not the kind you text LOL – also has multiple meanings and uses. And the question of whose laughter and what it means has a lot to do with gender.

Mark Liberman, at the Language Log, posted recently  about speech and gender – men and women, and what they say. Not surprisingly, they talk about different topics, and they use different words – when was the last time you heard a man say something was “adorable”?  But they also differ in the not-word sounds that punctuate their conversations – especially laughter.

These tables show the frequencies per million words (MW) and the log odds of male and female use, of what people say in conversations.  (See Liberman’s post, here.)

(Click on the chart for a slightly larger view.)

(The double-parentheses markers (( and )) indicate sounds – starting or ending – that the transcribers couldn’t make out; i- and th- are false starts – words the speaker started but then changed.)

Number one among female-dominated items is [laughter]. Liberman, who is usually a great source of insight on language, has disappointingly little to say:

It's less clear why women should laugh 60% more often than men do — are women on average happier, or more overtly sociable? Or do men feel constrained not to express positive emotions?

Is that all – happiness and sociability? Surely there are other kinds of female laughter – from a tween’s embarrassed, conspiratorial giggle to Phyllis Diller’s aggressive guffaw.  Somewhere on that axis lies the female apologetic laugh, the one designed to take the edge off any sharpness in what a woman is saying.  When Terry Gross, in her “Fresh Air” interviews, asks a question that might put her guest on the spot, she will often insert this kind of laugh.

Here are two examples. In the first, she suggests to Hillary Clinton that Clinton might have tried to sneak in under the radar with changes in the State Department’s internal LBGT policies.  In the second, she asks QuentinTarantino about the violence in his films.**

The trouble is that when the transcript shows “[laughter],” you cannot know what kind of laugh it is.  Sometimes you can’t know even when you hear it.  Sociologist Freed Bales spent years developing a schema for classifying interactions in small groups, years in which he listened to countless hours of group discussion. The result was Interaction Process Analysis or IPA (in 1950, craft breweries were not even a speck on the horizon).  It had twelve categories – six paired opposites:
  • Shows Antagonism / Shows Solidarity
  • Asks for Orientation / Gives Orientation
and so on.

Laughter was coded as “Shows Tension Release”; its counterpart was “Shows Tension.”  True, some laughter showed tension release, but much did not, and twenty years later, in a revised IPA, Bales put laughter in the category “Shows Tension” under the general heading of “Negative and Mixed Actions.”  Still, much laughter doesn’t fit into that box.  

Sometimes we ourselves don’t know what our laughter means. In Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments, subjects often laughed when the learner-victim cried out in pain. Clearly, this was nervous laughter. But when, in the famous film of the experiment, Milgram asks one subject why he laughed, the man says, “I thought it was funny, I guess.”

* To avoid ambiguity, when texters want to indicate “I got the joke,” instead of “LOL,” they use “haha.”

** Gross, especially in the Tarantino excerpt, uses the word like. A lot.  This may be a sign of her nervousness at asking a tough question. Or it just may be the way she usually speaks.

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