Monday, 25 Aug, 2008 Science

Bad Jokes Trigger Hostility


According to a research made by a linguist from Washington State University, bad jokes trigger a great outburst of hostility from listeners.

"These were basically attacks intended to result in the social exclusion or humiliation of the speaker, punctuated on occasion with profanity, a nasty glare or even a solid punch to the arm," said researcher Nancy Bell.

The "bad" joke that the researcher used in her study was:

"What did the big chimney say to the little chimney?

"Nothing, chimneys can't talk."

The reactions to the joke included insults, glares, silence and blows. The scientist mentioned that the verbal response to bad humor in the study was aimed towards attacking the speaker.

There are several explanations why bad humor triggers negative response. One is that it often interrupts the natural flow of conversation. Bad joke represent an abuse of a social contract. Thus, reacting negatively to a failed joke disheartens similar behavior in the future. A dumb joke could also insult the listener by implying that he or she might in fact find the joke funny.

"Being selected as an appropriate audience for a stupid joke suggests that there is something amiss with the hearer's sense of humor," Bell said.

It is worth mentioning that previously little research has been made on failed humor. In fact, humor represents a serious topic, featuring rich academic tradition.

Most professional comics would not consider the study's findings surprising; this is because they already know that bad humor could sometimes turn very ugly. However, Bell was not aggressively attacked during her study, though she has picked some of the worst jokes on the Internet.

She told her students to slip a joke into regular conversation and then record the outcome. "I told them, `just go out and tell bad jokes, be a hero in the field," Bell said.

There were 207 conversations where the chimney joke was used. It was found that 44 percent of the responses were rather impolite, aimed towards embarrassing the joke teller.

"The younger you are and the closer you are in age to your failed humorist, the more likely you are to attack," Bell said.

It was no surprise to discover that children showed aggressive reaction mainly to failed jokes told by their parents.

Fortunately, according to Bell, an Oregon native, bad humor is not very common in the United States. However, she faced strong criticism for her jokes in France, mainly because the jokes did not translate well into French.

"I may have been Nancy funny, but I was not French-speaking-Nancy funny," she said.


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