8.5 Two Psychological Perspectives On Joking

Here we will consider, first, a study of attitudes to joking, and then recall Freud’s idea of the role of the unconscious in humour. This latter will in turn reprise the question of the ownership of meaning.

Earlier (5.2) it was noted that de Sousa in his discussion of attitudes involved in joking remarked that laughter at a dubious joke showed a congruent attitude on the part of the audience: ‘the phthonic element in a joke requires endorsement’ (1987:240). Johnson (1990) carried out a study of this problem and came to the conclusion that there are two broad interpretations possible – attribution bias and impression management.

In the former, the joker is focused on the intent to amuse and the immediate expectations of the audience and genuinely has no offensive motive. The audience, however, are focused on the joker and his/her ‘internal, attitudinal, motivational, or personality factors’ (p.1051) and thus are more likely to attribute any offence to the joker’s attitudes. Even so, in this attribution bias account the joker’s ‘only-joking’ defence is seen as sincere. In the latter case, impression management, jokers can use joking as a kind of managed risk through which they can express potentially offensive feelings in a social setting. Should offence be taken, the joker can decommit to allow face-saving impression management in order to maintain a socially desirable impression (p.1052). In this impression management account the joker’s ‘only-joking’ defence is seen as insincere.

Johnson put these ideas to the test in an experiment involving 92 male and 43 female college students, asking if there was a congruence between joke-telling and attitude when (a) they themselves told such jokes, and (b) other people told such jokes. They were also asked if audiences who laughed at such jokes had a congruent attitude. Johnson, who does not provide a detailed breakdown of the figures, concludes:


The evidence suggests that people believe that their own jokes do not usually reflect their attitudes even when people are offended. In contrast, people seemed to attribute consistency of attitude to others’ jokes about half the time. This is a tremendous gulf and no doubt a significant source of conflict between tellers and audiences, likely to leave tellers feeling misunderstood and audiences at first offended and later deceived.
(p.1054)

Before relating this to the study at hand, some qualifications are necessary. Without more details we cannot be sure that the gulf is ‘tremendous’, but we accept the main thrust of the argument. Further, note is taken that the sample used in this study – college students – was not broadly representative, and also that this was not a study of humour in action in concrete social situations. Despite this, the two broad categories of attribution bias and impression management are useful for our purposes.

If we relate this to PI we do not get an immediately clear picture as the majority response to RB’s 53 is amused laughter, but BM’s 59 (‘sexist’) changes the situation and RB produces his ‘only-joking’ comment (60). As we have seen, BM continues the criticism and is joined by EM and JK. Collectively their comments exhibit a close fit with Johnson’s conclusion: they are at first offended and then feel deceived – JK’s 69 ‘Shame!’ suggests that a purported feminist such as RB should know better than to make such comments as his 53. That is, they take an impression management view of the situation and egard RB’s defence as insincere. (It is not known what LL’s views are on the matter.)

But there is also a fit with RB’s feelings as he is left feeling misunderstood (and angry). The cumulative nature of pragmatic force was discussed in 6.3.1 concerning repeated interruptions being seen as challenges. Thomas (1986) comments that pragmatic force is also cumulative ‘in the sense that participants assign value to utterances in the light of what has gone before’ (p.215). In this regard RB has seen a whole variety of humorous comments from various panellists on the microtopics of sex, gender, nudity, Thatcher etc. not only go unremarked but meet with an appreciative reception by both panel and studio audience. Yet suddenly his ‘joke’ about Thatcher is assigned a different value by other discussants.

As a comedian (and an actor) in performance space he also feels he has a certain licence, though it has been noticed that it is not always easy to know the exact extent of such, particularly given the ambiguity of a comedian as a comedian and as a private individual. For instance, the comedian Steve Coogan makes a point concerning the identity of the comedian him/herself vs. the character they portray. He gives the example of one of his creations, the drunken, violent, chauvinistic, working class Mancunian, Paul Calf. In the character of Calf he says, ‘I’m a radical feminist. I am. I am, really. I think you’ve got to be these days if you want to get your end away.’ He then adds, speaking as himself, that Calf’s last comment ‘subverts what he has just said, you know, and he doesn’t know that… so it works on that level of his ignorance and the audience’s knowledge, and it is kind of on one level offensive but because, you know, you do it within the conceit of the character, it’s infinitely excusable’ (Bragg 2001, emphasis added). But it is evident that RB is not performing within the conceit of a comic character, where separation of identities is clearer, but in the more ambivalent role of himself, a comic celebrity on a chat-cum-discussion programme in a television studio in front of a live audience, all of which may raise the question: ‘Who is speaking?’. Here is Tarlton Tarlton? Possible explanations such as a change of ‘footing’ between the roles of ‘author’, ‘animator’, or ‘speaker’ (Goffman 1981, Chapter 3) or between ‘speaker’ and ‘addressor’ (Hymes 1972b) come to mind. There may also be a distinction to be made between his ‘social role’ of actor/comedian and his ‘discourse role’ of panellist (Thomas 1986:92), which can involve one speaker being another’s ‘mouthpiece’ (p.111). Even so, RB does not avail himself of any such explanations and his ‘only-joking’ defence and following utterances are, however unintentionally, an acceptance of some kind of personal responsibility for the utterance. Troemal-Ploetz would require a greater degree of responsibility, pointing out that as social actors ‘we have the obligation to inform ourselves about which acts are seen as discriminatory, i.e. as sexist or racist or both, by our hearers, and we have to guarantee that our speech acts are such that they are not offensive if we do not want to offend.’ She insists there is a limit to how an utterance can be understood and misunderstood (1991:493).

Even so, he would no doubt claim that his primary focus is on amusing people and at the moment he utters 53 he may well have no offensive motive – after all, in 9 he merrily swaps his own gender (‘Quite a gal’) and in 11 tops that by changing his own sexuality (‘I’m a queer gal’). That is, such misattributions cause him no concern and are, for him, simply more comic fodder (though, it must be said, they are done from the comparative safety and comfort of the dominant social position of a male heterosexual). Thus it is possible from this perspective to see his defence in 60 as sincere, that is, to take an attribution bias view. However, it is not possible to take this view of his 90 concerning Madeleine Albright as at that point in the sequence it has been made abundantly clear to everyone what the permissible framework is. This latter remark of his would probably confirm to the others that their attitude to his 53 was appropriate but, given the conflict that occurred between 53 and 90, it could be construed as an expression of hurt defiance (with offensive intent) and so not necessarily have the same grounding as 53.

It is worthy of note, however, that this discussion is of surface or near-surface features, that is, of conscious positions. It is appropriate, then, to recall Freud’s view discussed above in 1.2 that joke-work allows the pleasurable expression of thoughts and feelings which are usually repressed and inhibited i.e. which are usually unconscious (1991,Chapter 7). In Freud’s formulation, the feeling of propriety which prevents us from insulting someone can be overcome if the insult is expressed in a joke. If such a view can be applied here, then it could indicate that RB may well be a proponent of feminist views (‘outspoken in the cause of feminism’, ‘enlightened about women’s rights’) but this free-and-easy, indeterminate mode of conversation, in which all manner of sex- and gender-related jokes have been made, creates a most receptive environment into which his unconscious feelings can bubble up. If this is the case, then his 53 can be seen as an expression of his unconscious feelings and he cannot be accused of conscious malicious intent and so his ‘only-joking’ defence would be seen as sincere. This does not, however, prevent him from being held socially responsible for the contents of the utterance (there are indeed limits to how far utterances can be mis/understood), and this once more brings us back to an earlier question concerning ‘who owns meaning?’ (6.1).

Duranti studied speech in Samoa, and, like Rosaldo in the Philippines earlier, found that meaning was established differently there to the way speech act theorists would have it. He contrasts what he calls the Western personalist view of meaning with the Samoan. The former proposes that ‘the meaning of an utterance is fully defined in the speaker’s mind before the act of speaking’ (1988a:13-4). He also adds support for this from Holquist, who, in a discussion of Polynesian cultures, contrasts their interpersonalist notions with this personalist view which ‘holds that “I own meaning”. A close bond is felt between the sense I have of myself as a unique being and the being of my language’ (in Duranti p.27, original emphasis). Duranti elsewhere notes, however, that in Samoa

[i]nterpretation is not conceived as the speaker’s privilege …[but] is based on the ability and power that others may have to invoke certain conventions…Meaning is collectively defined on the basis of recognised (and sometimes) restated social relations
(1986:241)

Clearly, as can be seen from the preceding discussion, communal meaning is not the sole preserve of Polynesian cultures. Whatever the reasons may be for RB’s utterance in 53, whatever he may say it meant, however so many may have been amused by it, and no matter the degree to which he can ‘prove’ his point, it is that particular group of people on that particular panel using the power arising from that particular combination of contingencies (what Buttny earlier called ‘the group’s folk-logic of action’, 1993:10) which determine the main outcome. This not only demonstrates the significant role of power in determining meaning but also impacts on the nature of preference organisation, to which we now turn.

8 Humour in Context: The Thatcher Joke>

8.1 The Performers, the Audience and Space>

8.2 The Discussants>

8.3 The Collaborative Floor vs The Single Floor>

8.4 Negotiating The Serious Import of Humour>

8.5 Two Psychological Perspectives on Joking

8.6 Preference>

8.7 Politeness>

Contents>