Everybody laughs. Babies giggle, elders guffaw and even animals chuckle once in a while. But not everyone laughs the same way.
While there’s some disagreement over what exactly causes people to laugh, we know it serves a social function. There’s a reason you laugh way more around friends than when you’re watching reruns of The Office on Netflix by yourself.
It’s probably not a surprise, then, that laughter is more than just an involuntary response to something funny. It’s an important part of communication, which is why when people don’t laugh, it can be somewhat disconcerting. But why does some laughter sound different from other laughter? Why do some people slap their knee and practically yell with glee, while others give a constrained little laugh? We read up on some of the factors that affect our “haha”s and “hehe”s.
How Do We Laugh Physically?
When you laugh, your body is doing a few different things. First, there are at least two major kinds of laughing: spontaneous and nonspontaneous. When you do a nonspontaneous laugh, you’re just creating the “ha ha ha” sound of laughter. Spontaneous laughter is when you involuntarily begin to chuckle. You can certainly try to suppress spontaneous laughter, but it’s a much more subconscious process.
When you do start to spontaneously laugh, your body springs into action. First, an event has to happen to cause you to laugh. This can be a joke, but very often laughter will just happen to keep a conversation light and friendly, even if nothing overtly humorous is happening. This activates the limbic system, which is the “primal” part of the brain that governs strong emotions like fear and pleasure. The limbic system controls your spontaneous laughter, which helps explain why people laugh when they’re afraid or uncomfortable. This system causes fifteen facial muscles to contract causing the laughter-face, and then the epiglottis (flap of cartilage in your throat) partially closes the larynx (where the vocal cords are), so the airflow in your throat is agitated. All of this comes together for what we could call “laughter.”
On one level, the sound of our laughter is pretty much just dictated by our bodies. People who have low voices will have lower laughs, and people with high voices will have higher laughs. Your laughter is pretty much a reflection of your voice. Still, that doesn’t account for all of the differences in the sounds people make. To answer that, we have to look at the social expectations of laughter.
How Do We Laugh Socially?
Laughing can be spontaneous, but that doesn’t mean we have no control over it. Maybe you’re someone who, without meaning to, snorts when you laugh. Sadly, society has decided snorting is weird, so you may have been shamed into not snorting anymore. As this illustrates, snorting and other features of a laugh are dictated by social pressures.
Atlas Obscura recently wrote about laughter and code-switching. The phenomenon of code-switching is usually referred to in the way that people change how they talk around other people. For example, you might swear in front of your friends, but not in front of your boss. And apparently, you do the same thing with laughter. Depending on who you’re around, your laugh will range from a little chuckle to a hearty guffaw. You wouldn’t laugh raucously at a joke someone told you in a library, nor would you chuckle under your breath at a joke someone told you at a party. Unless it’s a cocktail party.
In any case, your body subconsciously will read the room and try to create the right level of laughter and the right “sounds” of laughter. You actually have a whole repertoire of different laughs that you use from day to day. You might have the laugh you use when your boss tells you a joke, as well as the one you use when you’re trying to flirt with someone at a coffee shop. Sometimes you’ll lose control and laugh too hard, which is a noted phenomenon at funerals, but for the most part, your laugh is decided by the context you’re in.
You also might employ your nonspontaneous laugh, which has pretty much nothing to do with your spontaneous laugh. Sure, you might try to imitate the sound of your spontaneous laugh when you’re trying to politely laugh. But when you do that, you’re still not using the limbic system. A nonspontaneous laugh can sound like pretty much anything you want it to. So if someone is laughing differently at a joke you thought was funny, you might want to think harder about how humorous it really was.
Do People Laugh With An Accent?
You might have seen someone expressing a French laugh as “hon hon hon” somewhere online. Some Americans seem to think that this is really how French people laugh: with a nasal timbre. From that, you might think that people laugh differently depending on where they live in the world. The problem, however, is that the French don’t laugh like that, and no one is really sure where “hon hon hon” came from.
And yet, it can still seem like laughter can change from country to country. But psychologists say laughter is pretty much the same no matter where you are, meaning it’s pretty much only affected by a person’s anatomy and social environment. The one thing that might cause a difference in laughter around the world is a country’s cultural expectations. In a country in which people are expected to be more restrained, laughter will follow suit. This can’t really be called an accent, but it’s notable.
One example showing how culture can affect your voice, and possibly your laugh, comes from a study by Mark Liberman, which found that the society you live in can affect your vocal pitch. By comparing Americans and Japanese, he found that Japanese men tend to have lower voices than American men, and Japanese women had slightly higher voices than American women. This is likely because of different expectations of what a man and a woman should sound like in these two societies. While there have not been studies looking at laughter specifically, it’s probable that these results would be similar.
While laughter can change a little because of culture, it’s still an important universal language. After all, laughter needs to sound similar across different countries and cultures, or else it wouldn’t be immediately clear that the sound actually is laughter. But it’s nice to know that no matter where you are in the world, you can communicate at least a little with a giggle or a chuckle.