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Laughter as a means to downplay

Just like words, laughter is a linguistic resource actively used in conversation. For example, a speaker can downplay something that they, or their interlocutor, has just said by laughing. Laughter can “lighten the mood” if the speaker has just said something serious or sensitive, or it can downplay something problematic in the previous turn, regardless of who said it. 

A concrete example of the use of laughter as a means to downplay is shown below. It is an excerpt from a conversation in the radio program “Natteravnen” (“Night Owl”) where people can call in and talk to the host Lars (LAR) about their problems. Here, Lisbeth (LSB) has called to talk about her challenges with anxiety, and the excerpt begins just after Lisbeth has talked about the treatment she has undergone. 

Samtalebanken | Natteravn | Lisbeth ((audio))

01   LAR:   m Hjalp det så
            ‘did it help then’

02   LSB:   det  gjorde det  ja  men øh 
            It.N do.PPC it.N yes but uh
            ‘it did yes but uh
            Pengene      slap ☺op☺ hh[h&
            money-PL.DEF run  ☺up☺ hhh
            the money ran out ((laughter))’

03   LAR:                            [j[a

04   LSB:                            [☺

05          hhu☺ 

06   LSB:   og ø::h jah så var jeg sån set lige vidt
            ‘and uh yes then I was back to square one’

Lisbeth says in line 2 that she couldn’t continue the effective treatment, because she couldn’t afford it. She finishes the utterance with laughter. Lars doesn’t participate in her laughter but rather takes her story seriously and says ja ‘yes’. This is an example of what the American conversation analyst Gail Jefferson has described as being, respectively, troubles-resistant and troubles-receptive. Lisbeth uses laughter as a means to downplay her troubles and to send a signal that it isn’t as bad as it sounds. On the other hand, Lars demonstrates by not laughing that he is willing to listen and take the problem seriously: he is troubles-receptive. 

It doesn’t just have to be sensitive subjects like mental illness which are downplayed: it can also be something potentially problematic between the interlocutors. The below example is from a telephone conversation between B and C. B is sick and asks C to do her a favor, which requires that they meet: 

AULing | sygogjob | 73 ((telephone)) 

01   C:     .h jaja men ø:h i morgen er du dernede i morgen
            ‘yes yes but uh tomorrow are you down there

02          el[ler

03   B:       [ja,

04          (.)

05          [altså jeg regner altså stærkt med at jeg kommer
            ‘well I’m strongly counting on that I will come’

06   C:     [↑ja

07          (0.3)

08    ?:     Æ:hm::

09          (.)

10          ((click sound))

11          (0.9)

12   C:     ↑så ↓(h)ø:h:
            ‘so uh’

13          ((click sound))

14          (1.8)

15   C:     kigger jeg nok
            ‘I’ll  probably’

16          (0.3)

17   C:     forbi (.) mellem
            ‘stop by between’

18          (1.6)

19   C:     tolv

20          (.)

21   C:     ↓o’:

22          (0.9)

23   C:     syv

24          (0.5)

25   C:     (gh)hhhh hmhh hmhh hmhh he=

26   C:     =.h[hhhh he he he he he    ]h(gh) heh(gh)h

27   B:     [hhh he he he hå=o(h)kay(h)]
            ‘hehe okay’

28          ((click sound))

29   C:     .hhhhh JAM A: det ved jeg ikk hvornår tar du af
            ‘well I don’t know when do you take off’

30          sted dernede fra
            ‘from down there’

The excerpt begins with C asking whether B is going to be ‘down there’ – a  specific place they both know – the following day, so they can meet there. B answers that they strongly counts on coming, and thus indicates that they most likely will be there, but without promising anything. Afterwards C has quite a long turn from line 6 to 21. The turn contains many pauses and hesitation markers like æhm and øh, which can signal that there is something problematic about what C is about to say: that they will stop by between twelve and seven. This is a very long time-interval which doesn’t really give B a very precise idea about when they can expect her. The turn is also treated as problematic by B, who doesn’t take the turn during the 0.5 second pause after C has finished. Worth noticing is also the fact that B doesn’t provide any minimal responses such as ja ‘yes’ or mm, which would normally be expected. So, C’s utterance as well as B’s (lack of) response are problematic here. In line 23 C laughs, an invitation for B to also laugh, which they does in line 24. B’s laughter results in a responding okay to C’s utterance.  

C’s laughter thus both serves to portray their own utterance as less serious, perhaps even as a joke, by pointing out the absurdity in the long time-interval, and also as an invitation for B to respond. In this way, the problematic part of the interaction is downplayed and the discussion of when the two should meet can continue in line 27. 

Sources and further readings

Madsen, Hansen and Riise (2010) is an exam paper investigating laughter in Danish conversations. 

Jefferson (1979, 1985) are two texts about the function of laughter in English. 

Jefferson (2004) is about laughter in interactions between men and women – or rather “male roles” and “female roles”. 

Jefferson, Sacks and Schegloff (1987) describe the function of laughter in conversation, and specifically look into conversations where sensitive or tabu topics are at play. 

Relevant entries

Forms > Other expressions (not words) > Laughter

Functions > Actions > Stance > Downplaying

Functions > Actions > Stance > Judgment

Functions > Actions > Directive actions and responses > Request for action

Function > Invitation to laugh