I’ve finally figured out why we laugh at someone when they do something dorky. When they almost trip, when they stub their toe, when they stack a number of paper cups, only to find that the bottom cup wasn’t quite empty.
For years I assumed it was some kind of mean streak we have tucked away deep inside our subconscious. We might think we’re nice people, ready to lend a helping hand, ready with words of kindness and encouragement, but, as soon as our neighbor puts that hammer down on his thumb, we can’t help but snigger. Obviously there’s a real bastard inside us. What’s the harm, he thinks. There’s no way to help in time, so I might as well enjoy the pain of others.
But that would be the easy answer. And it’s one that simply doesn’t feel right. We snigger, yes, but do we actually feel happy? Do we actually think; thank goodness John finally stubbed his toe, that friendly, helpful bastard had it coming! Serves him right for all those times he helped me paint my garage! I don’t think so. Barring a few errant cases where we actually do hate someone, I’d say this isn’t what’s happening.
So I’ve wondered about this for years (I have done other things in between, I assure you, but the thought kept coming back to me.)
One of my later theories was that it’s a snigger of relief rather than joy. The idea being that a certain amount of dorkiness is inevitably going to be displayed on any given day. The best you can hope for is that your involvement will be minimal. Years of walking the tightrope of possible ridicule at high school has taught us how damaging the smallest slip-up can be to our social status. So, whenever we see someone do something dorky, we immediately let out a chuckle of relief; thank goodness that wasn’t me! We might think something along the lines of: I’m not happy about what just happened to you, but, on the upside, consider this; at least I wasn’t involved!
But that’s not it either. The real reason we can’t help but snigger when someone does something stupid or painful, is that we actually want to make them feel better. We want to ease their pain, and we do this by paying them a compliment. That may sound strange, but it’s true. By sniggering we’re sending a very clear signal:
“I can’t believe you just did something THAT stupid!”
And, when you think about it, that’s the kindest thing to do. Much kinder than the alternative signal. The signal we’d send if we did absolutely nothing. If we made no sound at all and pretended we didn’t even see the dorkiness going down. Because the alternative signal is:
“I fully expected you to do something THAT dorky, and I’m so embarrassed for you that I’m going to pretend I was looking the other way.”
When your friend slams the car door on his thumb and your initial reaction is one of pity, then you think he is a dork. When your initial reaction is to laugh at him, then you think he’s basically a cool guy who just did something dorky.
See the difference?
Which signal would you rather get?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine to be concerned and helpful a mere microsecond later, but in that initial, no-thought-only-action moment, you’d better laugh your ass off. You’d better snigger away or your relationship will be damaged forever!
To be continued....