YMIAFT Chapter 1 Part 7
“The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made.”
~ Jean Giraudoux
If you've watched the TV show The Simpsons, then you are probably familiar with the trademark laughter of the schoolyard bully character Nelson Muntz. The defining feature of his laughter is its deliberate sing-song intonation, which unmistakably conveys a social message of putting down the target, as opposed to sincere laughter from finding something funny. In one episode, the character Lisa attempts to perform standup comedy in her school cafeteria. Her jokes are lame, so Nelson wants to laugh at her failure. The problem, though, is that using laughter to express derision to a standup runs the risk of being mistaken for praise, even with his trademark intonation. So Nelson clarifies, “The following ha ha is not from amusement, but an expression of contempt. Ha ha!”
In the real world, no one is quite as straightforward as that, so laughter used to deliberately assert status and belittle someone can often sound just like actual laughter motivated by amusement. Despite the camouflage, though, we need to acknowledge that they are very different things. Just as we put tickling to one side, we also need to separate out instances of laughter that are not sincere responses. Any human expression or response can be manipulated to fit our social goals, for good or for bad. The whole art of acting is based on the simple premise that an actor can deliberately emulate any kind of human sentiment in order to get a response out of an audience. The only difference between acting and many other social manipulations is that actors are up front in asking you to suspend your disbelief.
Consider how soccer players roll around in exaggerated pain to get a response from the referee. They may be experiencing at least some genuine pain, if the act is preceded by an actual kick in the shins, but they exaggerate it in hopes of eliciting a favourable call against the other team. Even though the genuine pain and the deliberate exaggeration are bound together, we can still identify them as two separate things. There's no way to measure how much is pain and how much is exaggeration, but we know they're both distinct factors.
Some people can cry on demand in an effort to try and gain sympathy from others, twisting what is ordinarily an involuntary response to emotional stimulus into a deliberate behaviour in order to make a situation go the way they want. Similarly, people routinely use laughter as a tool for manipulation as much as every other feeling. For example, laughter can be used to defuse a tense situation, to convey confidence, to suck up to a superior, to flirt, and many other situations. Consider how the tactic of passive aggressiveness turns conveying gratitude or acceptance completely upside down by using overly deliberate agreeable behaviour to convey displeasure or anger. There is no limit to the degree which humans can and will bend and manipulate any and all methods of expression to further their personal goals, and laughter is no exception to that. In any situation when a human can gain something from manipulating a natural response, would we ever be able to objectively draw a hard line between the sincerity and the deliberation? Situations of bullying, flirting, defusing tension, and whatever else are the results of circumstances of infinite variety, with uncountable devils at work in the details.
In one instance I can laugh completely sincerely at a joke by someone with no motivation other than thinking it was funny. In another instance, I can completely force a laugh at a joke told by somebody I'm trying to get into bed with, because I'm a horrible person. Somewhere in the middle is yet another situation where I want to sleep with the person speaking, but I also genuinely found what they say at least a little funny. The laugh contains some amount of genuine amusement mixed with some amount of manipulation. In the real world it's often impossible to clearly separate the two motivations, but they can still be said to be two distinct things.
Just as comedy is the elevation of humour into a craft, we can view bullying, tension alleviation, sucking up to superiors, and any other deliberate manipulation of laughter as repurposing humour for social needs. It's like comedy gone bad, using humour as a tool to gain an advantage instead of trying to entertain. From that point of view, how laughter relates to these social manipulations would be a worthwhile study, but that's not what this book is about. This book only seeks to explain the sincere act of finding something funny, to the degree that there’s no additional social objectives involved. I'll leave it to someone else to write Your Mind Is A Manipulative Asshole.