Why no one's laughing at your jokes. Wrong predictions in conversational humor

Bachelor Thesis, 2019

47 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Humor
2.1 Defining humor
2.1.1 Superiority Theory
2.1.2 Release Theory
2.1.3 Incongruity-Resolution Theory
2.2 Relevance Theory and conversational humor
2.2.1 Grice's Cooperative Principle and humor
2.2.2 Yus' Relevance-Theoretic claims regarding humor

3. Humor in conversation
3.1 Purposes of conversational humor
3.2 Narrative jokes, conversational jokes, and play frame
3.2.1 Narrative jokes
3.2.2 Conversational jokes
3.2.3 Play frame and its markers
3.3 Importance of context and common ground

4. Failed Conversational Humor
4.1 Defining failure
4.1.1 Humor versus laughter
4.1.2 The speaker's judgment
4.2 Recognition, understanding, and appreciation
4.3 How to fail
4.3.1 Humorous framing and joke incongruity
4.3.2 Failure reasons derived from RT

5 Analysis
5.1 Two cases of failed conversational humor
5.1.1 "I'm still working on it."
5.1.2 "Chances are you're peeing."
5.2 Review

6 Conclusion


1. Introduction

Arguably, using humor in everyday conversation offers several positive effects on relationships and the general atmosphere. For example, it helps in self-representation and in communicating messages that would sound harsh when spoken out directly. However, as useful a tool conversational humor might be, a usual occurrence is its failure. When trying to be funny while talking to others, there is always the possibility to offend, be misunderstood, or for the humor not to be perceived at all. Many of these failures in conversational humor seem to arise from wrong estimations of shared context on the speaker's side. Here is an example: Someone makes a joke about politics, proceeding on the assumption that the listener is well versed in the topic, while, in fact, she is not; consequently, she probably will not find the joke funny because she lacks the background information the joke teller erroneously ascribed to her. People not understanding conversational jokes (or even noticing that an utterance was intended to be funny) is something that happens to people on a daily basis and still, we cannot always tell where they went wrong.

The challenge of this thesis will be to find out which steps in the whole process of generating and perceiving conversational humor are crucial for the failure. This will be explored via several representative case examples individually. This work aims to offer a helping hand to any reader who wishes to learn where conversational humor might go wrong and thus be able to anticipate bad jokes, understand why they are not funny (in the given situation) and prevent awkwardness by avoiding or adjusting them. Therefore, it will be useful to look for recurring aspects in failures of conversational jokes and analyze them with regard to the point where they go wrong.

Considering that conversational humor is a common occurrence in daily interaction and its occasional failure seems nearly inevitable, there has been surprisingly little research regarding humor failure. According to Nancy Bell, one of the few modern researchers who are intensely concerned with the subject, it is characteristic for linguistics to first explore communication patterns and then, much later, focus on what happens when those patterns do not work out as planned. "Thus", Bell states, "understanding received attention long before misunderstanding, communication before miscommunication, politeness before impoliteness, and humor before failed humor" (2015, p. 5). Bell's book We Are Not Amused: Failed Humor in Interaction (2015) offers a comprehensive approach to the subject and has been the foundation of this thesis, along with Humour and Relevance (2016) by Francisco Yus, which does not exclusively address failed humor but offers theoretic approaches to understanding the psychological internal processes that occur when conversational humor is involved.

On its way to the evaluation of cases of conversational humor failures, this thesis will address questions that will turn out to be relevant in the context, such as: What is humor? In what aspects does conversational humor differ from humor in general? How is humor produced and perceived? How are predictions made when joking in a conversation? What is the purpose of conversational humor? At what point is a conversational joke to be considered as failed? What and how important is the role of common ground? Are there any patterns to be found among cases of failed conversational humor? And, most importantly: How can a speaker avoid failed conversational humor?

Irony, teasing, puns, stand-up comedies, listener's reactions or written conversation are topics whose technical functionality this thesis will not be particularly concerned with. Even though irony, teasing, and puns cannot be ignored because those are very common tools in conversational joking, the focus will not lie on their mechanisms and occurrences. Especially teasing, as well as failures that are perceived as impoliteness, cannot be explored extensively, because they require that the psychological effects of the failure need to be considered, and exploring those appropriately would by far exceed the scope of this thesis. Failed humor turns out to be a very broad topic with many interesting aspects that, due to space restrictions, will have to be left for future research.

The structure of this work is oriented towards the questions above. After the introduction, in the second chapter, the presentation of recent humor theories will allow the reader come to terms with current approaches to the topic. Yus' relevance-theoretic approach will be introduced as well as basic Gricean pragmatics, which will aid in exemplifying the process of understanding humor and predicting the inferential steps the listener will take. The third chapter looks deeper into the subject of humor in conversation. Its purposes will be explored, conversational jokes will be differentiated from narrative jokes, and the environment of conversational humor will be surveyed closely. This includes the pragmatic, situational, and intersocial context. Chapter four then turns towards the failure of conversational humor. After formulating a definition for it to work with, identifiers, ways, and levels of failure will be explored based on Bell's (2015) and Hay's (2001) work. Following Yus' suggestions the concept of an internal ranking will be introduced, and elaborated will provide the foundation of the following analysis. Finally, the fifth chapter will evaluate specific case examples of failed conversational humor excerpted from recent YouTube videos and review the results of the analysis. The concluding chapter will survey the thesis in retrospect, take the broader view of the many subjects that play a role in conversational humor but can only be referred to superficially in this work, and finally issues for future research will be suggested.

In this thesis there are always two sides of conversational humor (and its failure) to be considered: the speaker's and the listener's. These roles will be indicated by the letters S and L in the following, and both S and L will be referred to by female pronouns. Some of the demonstrative examples of jokes, irony, or mere implicatures without any humorous intention, have been provided by colleagues and friends. Those are marked as [own data]. Cases that do not supply a source are common hypothetical examples. In all such examples, the participants are always addressed as female and labelled S and L as well.

2. Humor

2.1 Defining humor

As intuitive as it appears to us to judge whether we find something funny or not, when thinking about it from an analytic point of view, one may find it hard to come up with a clear definition of what humor is. In fact, up to this date, there still does not exist one single explanation as to why we find things funny, even though scholars have attended to this topic since ancient times when Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle came up with initial thoughts about humor. However, nowadays there are three humor theories which are widely accepted among researchers and in the literature. These are: Superiority Theory, Release Theory, and Incongruity-Resolution Theory. In the following, the three theories will be presented shortly.

2.1.1 Superiority Theory

As the name suggests, this theory relies on the human feeling of being superior to someone or something. First suggested by Plato and Aristotle (Morreall 1987), it is by far the oldest attempt at explaining humor and still persists in modern literature about humor research. The Superiority Theory seems to trace back any occurrence of humor to the pleasure in experiencing others' misfortune and feeling good due to being in some way better (“superior”) than them.

2.1.2 Release Theory

Release or Relief Theories gained popularity in the 20th century with Freud being an important supporter who "believed that there was a connection between the release of tension, the pleasure derived from it and the eventual humor" (Yus 2016). This means that the rather sudden release of built-up nervous energy results in laughter and humor as a positive emotion. In narrative jokes, the listener's expectations will often be thwarted as they get to the punchline. The surprise after having been misled and arriving at an unexpected outcome may result in laughter once the listener "gets it".

Concerning the topic of this thesis, namely, the mechanisms that lead to failure in conversational humor, it seems that this theory would offer an explanatory approach as to why sometimes the listener would not laugh at the delivered punchline: she might have already guessed the outcome because the joke was too predictable. Neither did the nervous tension built up inside her nor was there any effect of surprise. However, as narrative jokes are not the subject of this thesis (more on this in section 3.2), it will be shown below that the third Theory of Incongruity-Resolution offers the best approach to analyze the failure of conversational humor.

2.1.3 Incongruity-Resolution Theory

The third and recently most favored theory also involves unmet expectations on L's side, but the approach is a different one. The incongruity arises when something does not quite seem to match up and expectations remain unfulfilled until this discrepancy is resolved. The internal psychological process can be seen as quite similar to what happens when a riddle is solved by the human brain.

Hurley et al. (2011) proposed an evolution-oriented theory that supports this approach. According to them, a sense of humor is the result of an evolved adaption of the human brain, which they call "debugging" (analogous to the process of finding and resolving errors in computer programs). Whenever the brain resolves an incongruity, the neural pleasure center is activated, resulting in mirth, a very positive emotion. Thus, the human brain will be primed to seek humor given this activation of positive emotion it achieves from identifying contradictions and pointing them out.

2.2 Relevance Theory and conversational humor

Yus (2016) expands the Incongruity-Resolution Theory with a relevance-theoretic approach. He describes Relevance Theory (henceforth RT) as "a cognitive theory of human communication grounded in cognitive pragmatics" and explains that "the main theoretical foundation of RT is the claim that human cognition is geared to the maximisation of relevance, that is, it always tries to obtain the highest benefit from all the inputs that it processes" (Yus 2016). In practice, this means that the human brain will always focus on what seems most relevant in a given situation, which consequently also applies to communication. In order to better understand the role of relevance in perceiving and producing conversational acts, a well-known and widely acknowledged principle will shortly be presented in the following section. After that, Yus' theory will be put in the context of conversational humor. Relevance theory is based on a crucial revision of Grice's theory of conversational implicature, so we will consider Grice's views first below.

2.2.1 Grice's Cooperative Principle and humor

In the following example, L will easily infer that S's intended answer to her question is no, even though S does not literally say so.

(1) L: "Are you coming to the party tonight?"

S: "I have an exam tomorrow."

The interpretation of utterances often leads to different outcomes depending on the person who is doing the interpreting. But, in this case, it is presumed that L correctly inferred that S meant to convey she is not coming to the party that evening because she will be studying for the exam. The essential basic assumption that enables L to take the inferential steps towards this conclusion is the one that S is trying to be cooperative by being relevant - even though, on the surface level, her literal utterance does not seem to match the direct answer required by the question. The importance and meaning of the two terms, cooperation and relevance, will be explained in the following as they are introduced as part of the work of Herbert Paul Grice and his Cooperative Principle (henceforth CP).

The CP goes as follows: "Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged." (Grice 1989). The CP consists of four maxims, some of which are divided further into sub-maxims. They are presented below:

1. Maxim of Quantity

a) Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).
b) Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

2. Maxim of Quality Supermaxim: Try to make your contribution one that is true Submaxims:

a) Do not say what you believe to be false.
b) Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

3. Maxim of Relevance (Relation) Be Relevant

4. Maxim of Manner Supermaxim: Be perspicuous Submaxims:

a) Avoid obscurity of expression.
b) Avoid ambiguity.
c) Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
d) Be orderly.

(Grice 1989)

The CP and its maxims arise from the rationality of natural language speakers and are generally acknowledged in scientific fields that concern the subject of communication, e.g. pragmatics. However, unlike, for example, the rules of logic, the maxims can be flouted and they are violated frequently in daily conversations while an intended meaning can still be conveyed. This is what happens in the generation of implicatures, as shown in example (1) above. Based on the assumption that S observes the maxims of the cooperative principle (in this case the Maxim of Relevance), the listener can infer what S is implicating. In fact, flouting of maxims is also used to create implicatures (Attardo 2017) and is highly relevant in generating and perceiving humor. As for perceiving or interpreting an utterance and recognizing the intention behind it (is it humorous or is there a mere implicature not meant to amuse?), a rough pattern of the process can be exemplified for (1) above:

(I) Inferential steps

1. L assumes that S is being cooperative and trying to give a relevant answer to her question.
2. But S's utterance is not a direct answer to the question that requires a yes or no.
3. Still, L is confident that S is trying to be relevant.
4. Thus, the fact that S has an exam on the following day must be relevant to the question and either constitutes a yes or a no.
5. Having an exam the following day is more likely to be a reason to not go to a party and perhaps study instead.
6. So, S means to say no.

In order to be able to generate such implicature that the listener will understand though, S not only has to be capable of interpretation herself but also be able to predict L's ability to do so. In reference to example (1), S presupposes that L knows that it is common to study for an exam the evening before and that passing the exam is more important than going to a party. Only by presupposing this common knowledge can she predict that L will be able to infer the meaning of her answer.

On the other hand, as opposed to straightforward implicatures such as in (1), conversational humor is always more complex. Its main purpose is not to communicate only but also to amuse. This is why not every attempt at conversational humor can be expected to convey new information. However, the utterance must be relevant to some degree in the current context, because otherwise, the connection that leads to incongruity-resolution cannot be made. Sperber & Wilson (1986), who came up with Relevance theory (RT), suggest that, as opposed to the other maxims, it is not possible to violate the Maxim of Relevance. According to this then, even conversational jokes that do not provide an appropriate amount of information (Quantity), are untrue (Quality) and are not expressed clearly (Manner) can still be identified and accepted as (at least an attempt at) humor and therefore be relevant.

The following example is neither informative nor true (hopefully) and still, it does not seem to be out of context and the humorous intention is rather easy to identify for most people:

(2) L (talking about her dog): "He came running up to me, panting happily, smelling horribly and covered in mud..."

S: "Sounds like my husband every Friday night." [own data]

Yus (2016, p. 4) classifies RT as Post-Gricean, meaning that it does not agree with some foundational aspects of Grice's theory, such as the need of a cooperative principle for explaining communication. RT dismisses the CP and replaces it with cognitive principles and a linguistic processing account to explain the phenomena addressed by Grice's theory. As a result, RT changes the view of linguistic meaning and it provides several types of implicatures and inferences distinct to those proposed by Grice. Moreover, RT suggests that in order to fully understand the content of utterances, much more contextualization is needed to resolve linguistic underspecification than is considered by Grice's theory and the CP. However, for what concerns us here, the processing of humorous utterances, the inferential process postulated by RT as roughly realized in the steps outlined in (I) above provides a solid basis for the comprehension of how an utterance is perceived in a conversation.

2.2.2 Yus' Relevance-Theoretic claims regarding humor

Building on what has been said so far, it is time to get back to Yus and his relevance-theoretic approach to conversational humor. In the Introduction of Humour and Relevance (2016), he states four claims as a foundation for his approach. While the first, third and fourth will be summarized shortly, the second will be fully quoted due to its importance for the topic of this thesis:

1. Even though humor is most likely not to satisfy the human brain's desire for relevance, it still offers other benefits like the manifestation of social relationships.
2. “Humans cannot enter people's minds, but they can mind-read their inferential strategies. When a speaker tells a joke or utters other types of humorous discourse, he/she can make certain predictions about how this discourse is going to be interpreted, which inferential strategies are going to be used in enriching the discourse into fully contextualised interpretations, which implications will probably be derived in the hearer's search for relevance, and how much quality and quantity of contextual information the hearer is likely to access and retrieve in order to comprehend the discourse appropriately. This human capacity is invaluable for designing discourses so as to generate eventual humorous effects.” (Yus, 2016, p. XVI)
3. On a subconscious level, people are able to rank possible interpretations of an utterance in terms of relevance and likelihood. Normally, the highest ranked option is chosen for an interpretation. This is what humorists often make use of, misleading the listener to initially choose an option which is later (in the punchline) refuted.
4. A lot of coding, decoding, and inferential work takes place between what the speaker says and means and what the listener hears and understands. Also, there is a difference between what is said or heard ("logical form") and what is meant or understood.

As indicated before, the ability of mind-reading in the sense of Yus (2016, second claim above) is a fundamental aspect of humor generation and interpretation. It will be shown in chapters 4 and 5, that this strategy of mind-reading makes use of the ranking mentioned in the third claim above and most probably causes conversational humor to fail when not performed adequately.

The generation of humor via predictions will be illustrated with an example taken from Yus (2016), who gives an important hint by stating that "humorists can predict which background information from the hearer's memory is likely to be retrieved and used in processing the joke and which inferences the hearer is likely to draw":

(3) Customer: I'd like to buy a novel, please.

Bookshop assistant: Certainly, madam. Do you have the title or name of the author?

Customer: Not really. I was hoping you could suggest something suitable. Bookshop assistant: No problem. Do you like light or heavy reading? Customer: It doesn't matter. I've left the car just outside the shop.

(Yus 2016, p. 123)

In this joke example, the humorist plays with L's expectations which, in turn, she predicts. She knows that L's highest ranked interpretation (see claim 3 above) of the words light and heavy in combination with reading and uttered in the given context, will be those in terms of how sophisticated the reading will be. Not only does she incorporate this knowledge into her plan, the humorous effect even depends on it. Once she offers the customer's last utterance as a punchline, she makes L reconsider her interpretation (striving to resolve the incongruity) and correct it towards another option: the one regarding the literal weight of the book.

The humorist would not have been able to come up with this plan without the ability to predict what salient interpretations L would arrive at. If for whatever reason, the predictions were incorrect, the joke may have failed. L might not make the connection between having a car directly available, the implied irrelevance of the physical weight of the books and the metaphorical use of the adjectives light and heavy. She might have already assigned another meaning to those two words and might be reluctant to backtrack because it costs some mental effort. For various reasons (which will be explored in chapter 4) she simply might not be able to recognize the connection, even though if she does, she will be rewarded with a positive response in the form of mirth for resolving the discrepancy (as explained in 2.1.3). Exploring the crucial point where the predictions went wrong and caused conversational humor to fail will be the challenge of this thesis.

3. Humor in conversation

Even when narrowing the topic of humor down to conversational humor, the range of possible and interesting subjects is wide. There are various ways to incorporate humor into a conversation, many of which do not necessarily take place at the level of spoken language. In this chapter, the purposes and conditions of conversational humor will be explored as well as the importance of context and common ground.

3.1 Purposes of conversational humor

Both producing as well as perceiving humor require mental effort and this is likely to slow down the possible exchange of information. Perhaps every reader knows situations in which someone refuses to give a clear answer to a simple question and instead wraps it up in a joke or does not answer the question at all. Example (4) displays such a case where L intends to simply get the exact time as an answer.

(4) L: "Do you know what time it is?"

S: "Yes, I do."

Arguably, ascribing the intention of being funny to S depends on the context and the exact definition of humor. If L and S's relationship was bad, S's answer could simply be seen as passive- aggressive and not funny at all. But for now, let us suppose that S answers in well-meaning humor and is trying to - well, to do what exactly?

She is bluntly refusing to answer the implicated question and thus appears to be uncooperative. Of course, she is answering the literal question, but it will be assumed that she recognizes the implicature of L's question as well. A common and likely reaction of L would be a sign of acknowledgment of some sort (some of which will be explored in 4.1), maybe a smile or even laughter, eye-rolling or just a resigned sigh. Then, given that she is actually well-meaning, S should give an adequate answer eventually, something along the lines of, "Just kidding. It's 3:20." In such cases, S's initial (more or less) humorous answer is completely unnecessary on a functional level, counterproductive even. For example, when asking for the time, L might be in a hurry and not have the time for joking. So, what is a person like S trying to accomplish in such a situation?

Even if unnecessary for direct information transfer, humor provides a number of social benefits as well as the possibility to convey messages in a less direct way. Criticism, complaints and even insults will seem less harmful when wrapped up in good humor. Also, it is easy to draw back via utterances like, "Just kidding", "No, but seriously" and so on, when a negative reaction seems to loom ahead. On the positive side, the social benefits are numerous and worthwhile. According to RT, they have to be rewarding enough in order to outweigh the mental effort and lack of efficiency for the conversation. Humor in conversation, when successful, can help deepen relationships (e.g. via already existing or emerging inside jokes), show solidarity, lighten up a situation, and express friendliness. It is also a useful tool for distinguishing and presenting oneself. What people find humorous reveals much about their personality and attitude towards the subject of the joke.


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Why no one's laughing at your jokes. Wrong predictions in conversational humor
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"  (Sprache und Information)
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linguistics, linguistik, pragmatics, pragmatik, pragmatics of humor, pragmatics of humour, humor, humour, humor failure, humour failure, jokes, joking, failures in communication, wrong predictions, conversational humor, conversational humour, common ground, failed jokes, miscommunication, bad joke, bad jokes, failed humor, failed humour, relevance theory, yus, play frame, nancy bell
Quote paper
Nina Godenrath (Author), 2019, Why no one's laughing at your jokes. Wrong predictions in conversational humor, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/510098


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