Workplace Implications and Impacts of Self-Laughter

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LAUGHTERPeople who laugh at their own stories, narratives. jokes (or, less commonly, their own actions) are derided and praised as often as they aren’t the least bit funny, irrespective of whether they are laughing at themselves, at situations or events, at or with others, in the middle of an epiphany or seemingly without cause at all.

What is less clear is whether the elements of the following analysis—the causes (including purposes), implications and impacts of “self-laughter” in the context of workplace relationships, culture and performance—are just as familiar and widely recognized.

Those who find such “self-laughter” puzzling, if not also annoying, self-infatuated, simple-minded or fake, are probably as numerous as those who think guffawing self-laughers are endearing, living testaments to our coping and story-telling abilities, capacity for “spontaneity”, unguardedness, in-the-moment joie-de-vivre free-spiritedness, or life-of-the-party skills (to name but a few such positive and negative characterizations).

To make an analysis of this particular form of laughter and its workplace impact and other relevance more precise and useful, I propose defining “self-laughter” in terms of the following admittedly somewhat complex (because precise and comprehensive) working definition:

“Self-laughter” is laughter that (un)intentionally has the effect of expressing and/or eliciting something in response to, during, or in anticipation of something else the laugher has just said (or done), is saying (or doing) or is about to say (or do),  or feels, either for the first time, as a repetition of one’s own jokes, experiences, actions, etc.,  or as a manifestation of mood or temperament.

(Note: It may take more than one read to fully get the reasons for the precise distinctions in this definition.)

What this definition captures is the fact that self-laughers will laugh just after, while or just before they say, do or feel whatever triggers the laughter (as opposed to suddenly laughing a week later or earlier). It also rules out “laughing at oneself” or any single type of self-laughter as the only form, allowing that self-laughter may be playful, malicious, humble, simple-minded, flash-back, nostalgic or one or more (simultaneously) of a number of other kinds.

What it also allows is the concept and existence of important differences between a consistent self-laugher personality trait and a one-off, rare, isolated self-laughter moment (as a state), with the self-laugher personality trait being of particular relevance to personnel assessment, insofar as it is a marker or correlate of any capacities, other traits or tendencies relevant to the workplace.

It also encapsulates the reasonable expectation that some instances of self-laughter may be the result of a truly spontaneous “eureka!’ real-time, first-time creative or otherwise insightful epiphany in midstream, while others may be as pedestrian and predictable as (well-practiced) manifestations of the desire to be liked, to entertain or to pad a story that just isn’t funny.

In being a broader rather than narrower working definition, it encourages follow-up investigation into and discovery of the descriptive and explanatory elements and impacts of self-laughter, instead of assuming them.

By identifying such descriptive and explanatory factors, we will be able to also identify and explain the ways in which self-laughter may impact the workplace—especially its relationships, culture and job performance.

Of particular general interest are those familiar instances in which self-laughter goes far beyond mere chuckling and chortling and crosses the line into puzzlingly hysterical convulsions, despite being self-laughter about some banal narrative or joke previously (and prospectively) countlessly repeated. As is the case with any other phenomenon, extremes here too can help us better understand the norm.

Unfortunately, although humor and laughter have been well-investigated, e.g., by Sigmund Freud in The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious,   Arthur Koestler’s brilliant analysis of creativity in science, art and humor, The Act of Creation, I’ve found very little that counts as investigation of self-laughter. So, most of the following is “informed speculation”.

Anatomy of the Self-Laugher

The simplest explanation of self-laughter is probably also the most favored: Self-laughers are naturally very happy, exuberant people brimming with joy—although it is unclear why joy without any perception of incongruity or surprise should consistently, from person to person, occasion to occasion, and for any single individual, be manifested as hearty laughter (as opposed to a beatific smile).

However, among possible, additional descriptive or explanatory states, traits and circumstances of self-laughing are these as candidate factors and illustrations:

1. PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORY: My own informal investigations and observations have suggested a correlation between superb—almost photographic—situational recall and self-laughter. Of particular relevance in this connection is to draw a distinction between job candidates who possess such superb “situational memory” and those with strong “semantic memory”, the latter I define as being recall of ideas and concepts (often at the expense of situational memory, because of semantic memory’s concentration on abstractions).

This category of self-laugher I would characterize as having a marked capacity for recall of situational as well as or instead of semantic detail. Every one of the handful of friends I know well and have asked about self-laughter, and who is a self-identified self-laugher, also has a phenomenal recall of details (including those relating to the day we met, decades ago, in the instances of long-term friendships). In some respects, each seems to possess something akin to complete recall—including, it seems, on a kind of emotional as well as perceptual flashback basis.

On the flip side, I cite myself as a paradigm case of strong semantic recall, e.g., of concepts and propositions, but with wretched recall of details, situations or events.

One useful diagnostic question to ask an admitted self-laugher is whether (s)he can remember who first told the joke (s)he just repeated and laughed at or recall other circumstances in which (s)he first heard it.

When displayed or acknowledged self-laughter is a marker for a superb situational memory, it is likely to be an excellent qualification for staff whose accurate recall of situations, events, dates, names, etc., is very important, e.g., secretaries, receptionists and hands-on project managers.

2. RELIVING VS. RECOUNTING OF EXPERIENCES: I also suspect that, because of the hypothesized vividness and accuracy of recall, including emotional recall, some self-laughers may experience more frequent or more intense reliving of events and situations as something akin to a powerful flashback.

This can be a very positive “capacity”, e.g., in motivating new recruits, as the retiring CEO and founder of a company gives an ebullient, uplifting and vivid pep-talk and reminscence about the challenges and triumphs of the earliest days.

However, when under severe stress, a staffer with this kind of complete recall may end up stressfully reliving workplace or job crises, rather than merely reporting or relieving them, and thereby creating a contagious sense of unease, if not panic.

3. SOCIAL IN-GROUP LUBRICATION:(as self and group validating laughter): It is likely that much self-laughter is a sign of gregariousness, extroversion, conformity, social cohesion and other traits and states that indicate intense or required sociability. Jobs and careers that capitalize on or require sociabilitty may be a good match for a tribal self-laugher.

4.  SUDDEN COMPLEX JOKE EPIPHANIES: When, as I myself experienced recently, a moment of comic epiphany plus three other critical elements create a perfect laugh storm, self-laughter becomes very likely—but as a state, rather than a strong trait.

Those three other essential elements are

I. an unusual degree of perceived incongruity, creativity and unexpectedness

II. a very high degree of emotional investment in the target or subject of the humor.

III. a serious-not serious tinge (i.e., relating to ambivalence, playfulness or harmless treatment of a taboo).

When the epiphany combines a rich insight with a genuinely humorous, off-the-wall vehicle for expressing it plus relatively intense emotional involvement with the issue or the target of the joke, the creator and teller of the joke is likely to laugh because of what I’ll call “adaptive lag”: the delay between creating or detecting the incongruity and its losing its “charge” through familiarity.

For example, while good-naturedly teasing an evangelical friend whose zeal and fervor frequently utterly exasperate me, I framed and fired off this joke: “Why did Eve have sex with Adam? Answer: Because he said, “Eve, you are the only one for me.” (As I recall, this was probably the joke that made me self-laugh—for the first time that I can remember, even if not the first time ever.)

Given what I take to be the joke’s subtly deep structure and associations, it’s not hard to see why it or a comparable joke could cause self- or other laughter: There are multiple incongruities, not just one. First, the premise incongruously juxtaposes the sacred (i.e., Genesis) with the profane (i.e., sex); secondly, it identifies, juxtaposes and reverses the roles of Eve as temptress and Adam as possibly sly seducer; third, it exploits the hilarious incongruity and ambiguity of “the only one for me” (in our over-populated world vs. in their Garden-of-Eden-for-two).

The implication for recruitment is that self-laughter can be evidence of an important professional trait and diagnostic: The self-laugher enjoys, grasps and creates complex and lateral thinking and is emotionally invested in the topic or target of the joke—which can provide clues about personality and character priorities, values, hot-buttons, biases, foci, etc..

For jobs that actually (should) require a developed sense of humor, e.g., cartooning (which I’ve done), writing for The Daily Show, The Simpsons or South Park, self-laughter that lacks the complexity and multiple incongruity elements may, in fact, be a job disqualification.

A comedy writer, cartoonist or used-car salesman who consistently self-laughs at anything less may find his misguided laughter backfiring (in the job interview or on the job), as he comes across as someone who—as the Japanese put it—”laughs even when chopsticks tumble” (O-hashi ga koronde mo warau) and has a simpleton’s sense of humor.

5. LOW THRESHOLD OF EXCITABILITY: Some self-laughers may laugh at almost everything, because of a general excitability not unlike that of young children who laugh heartily and excitedly at the drop of a hat or a chopstick. This trait can be an invaluable asset in jobs that require genuinely excitable, bubbly, always “up” staff with a ready laugh, e.g., motivational seminar “cheerleaders”, paid audience (shills) at a comedy show or humor therapists.

6. A MANIPULATIVE AGENDA: Some self laughter may be employed as a tool to induce a mood in an audience or to minimize an otherwise negative impact of the expressed information. As an indicator of manipulativeness, this form of self-laughter may correlate with the characteristics of an effective time-share, encyclopedia or other persuasion-dependent sales personnel, and may be fake or unconsciously motivated.

7. DEPERSONALIZATION AND DISTANCING (of and from the narrative or behavioral content) Self-laughter may take the form of a simulated 3rd-person laughter response that “disowns” the story or action, as though one is laughing at (oneself or an “other”), rather than as oneself. This could be a tactic adopted to evade or minimize responsibility and deflect blame for either the telling of the story or for laughing at it and whoever or whatever is involved in it.

While this could be a red-flag indicator of a workplace or more general tendency to pass the buck, shirk or deny accountability, or of a tendency or intent to emotionally, morally or intellectually dissociate, it could also be an asset, if its principle effect or purpose is to encourage both the self-laugher and the audience to laugh at themselves or the situation, and thereby lighten up or more calmly assess the issue at hand, without freaking out.

8. REFLEX OR FAUX SELF-EFFACEMENT: Whether or not it correlates with being a “people-pleaser” or office clown, self-deprecating or humbling self-laughter can be a valuable asset in jobs that require a very attentive, obedient and accommodating staffer, especially when it is a reflex, rather than fake. One driver of such self-effacing self-laughter may be the desire to “repackage” (un)recognized feelings of perceived personal inferiority (in contrast with aggressive self-laughter, below, that may project them).

9. AGGRESSION AND ASSERTIVENESS: If the self-laughter (which, it must be remembered is not usually at oneself) is at another individual’s or group’s expense, it can be a marker for an aggressive or assertive personality, which can be a huge asset or liability, depending on the desire’s targets, intensity, expression, etc.

Although veiled or obvious aggression, as Sigmund Freud argued, is a recognized element in much humor, in self-laughter at someone’s expense it is likely to be more intense because of the evident excitement of the speaker.

10. RESPONSE TO OR ANTICIPATION OF TENSION: (within oneself or the group/audience): If self-laughter takes this form, it may be a positive indicator of pleasant adaptability to stress (unless for cultural or social reasons it seems grossly inappropriate, e.g., in cases in which this way of dealing with tension is associated with denial, discussed next).

11. DENIAL OF OR COMPENSATION FOR FEAR, ANXIETY, SUSPICION, ETC.: As a special case of the more general category of tension, self-laughter as denial or compensation can play a positive role in the office, e.g., by helping calm or comfort other staff. In such situations, self-laughter can relieve or allay fears, tension, etc., except when it violates taboos, e.g., when it seems like outrageous insensitivity or mean-spirited schadenfreude.

 The Joyful vs. the Complex

By comparison with the simple explanation that self-laughers are primarily or frequently simply joyful people, some—perhaps most—of the foregoing characterizations of causes and reasons for self-laughter are almost certainly to seem as analytically complex as they are unfamiliar.

Nevertheless, that does not mean that they are less accurate, less important for understanding and shaping workplace relations, or less in play than simple joyfulness as an account of self-laughter (which will always be the most favorable and favored explanation of all).

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Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).