Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Smiles and Laughter: Take Care How You Interpret Them

Is having the last laugh about getting justice or getting even?

Key points

  • How “he who laughs last, laughs best” should be interpreted depends on the context in which it occurs.
  • Both smiles and laughs can be cordial or contemptuous—compare a heartfelt chuckle with a disdainful cackle.
  • Playing tit for tat can liken you to those who mocked you, so just “returning the favor” is hardly laudatory.
Source: luismolinero/123RF

The common expression “He who laughs last, laughs best” is far more ambiguous than, at first blush, it might seem. Strangely, something quite profound—and frankly, rather suspect—about human nature lurks within this unusually paradoxical utterance.

But precisely what such laughter means depends on the particular context.

Realistically, those who laugh at you aren’t simply doubting you. They’re ridiculing you, dismissing or rejecting your proposal or plan. And that’s just plain mean.

Still, if you have faith in your endeavor and continue to pursue it, it may well turn out successful. And so, whether literally or figuratively, you’re the one who gets the last laugh. In this instance, it might be asked whether such laughter is best regarded as an affirmation—that you never lost confidence in your forecast, albeit it strikes others as misguided.

Or might your reaction be driven by a vengeful desire to belittle those who belittled you earlier?

Is a Smile as “Two-Faced” as Laughter?

It’s fascinating how ambiguous seemingly simple and straightforward maxims can be. So if, for instance, you consider the many connotations for the word smile (laughter’s first cousin), you need to reflect on how these connotations differ dramatically.

Typically, a smile is understood as patently different from its antonym, frown—implying a polite, affable, or welcome response to (or from) another. Whoever prompted the smile would have said or done something pleasing or gratifying, maybe leaving the other party grinning, even beaming.

All the same, if your boss demanded you smile at an obstinate customer, regardless of how you actually felt toward them, that smile would be forced, strained, and insincere. In a word, phony. Or, if your smile was smirky, it might not just be inauthentic but signal annoyance or downright derision.

As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, a smirk is smiling in “an irritatingly smug, conceited, or silly way.” So no one but a masochist could possibly enjoy being at the receiving end of such a facial expression.

At times, then, a smile can betray feelings sharply contrary to pleasure or amusement. And ironically, this smile (i.e., a fake, fraudulent one) wouldn’t represent the opposite of a frown at all. For barely concealed inside the smile may reside a frown that’s condescending or disapproving.

Returning to First Laugh or Last Laugh: Different and the Same

Doubtless, you’re familiar with the common distinction between “laughing at” and “laughing with.” So if nothing else, laughing last would seem justified in situations where those who laughed at you, thereby exhibiting disdain for you, were truly mean-spirited.

Moreover, these possibly contemptuous individuals may not only have expected you to fail but secretly hoped you would.

Consider common characterizations emphasizing that when people laugh at you, they’re mocking or making jokes about you. And a word that perfectly zeroes in on such unmerciful, discrediting laughter is “jeering.”

They may have perceived you as competing with them, such that if you succeeded (i.e., won), they’d have to admit defeat. And such an outcome could foster anxiety, sorrow, or self-pity by obliging them to see you as superior, a contingency perhaps intolerable to their prideful ego.

Again, laughter can signify adverse as well as favorable feelings. So although a broad smile (or smiling “ear-to-ear”—another idiom) is generally akin to laughter, that doesn’t mean you can assume that, in all contexts, it’s positive or trustworthy.

The root definition of the laughing-last phrase is undeniably positive. As one dictionary describes it: “If you say that you have the last laugh, you mean that you become successful at something so that people who criticize or oppose you look foolish.” In other words, those who originally laughed at you richly deserve to be laughed at in return.

Nonetheless, if you’re the one laughing last, your own behavior is subject to all kinds of evaluations, not all of which are positive.

True, your laughing last could be seen as virtuous, signaling your dogged persistence in working at something that others discouraged or disparaged. And, too, it could be viewed as righteous, revealing your satisfaction in attaining a fair, equitable, or “just” result.

On the contrary, however, your laugh might be understood as not laudable at all if it were motivated by the ego-driven desire to get back at someone who (whether intentionally or accidentally) made you feel put down.

What Else Needs to Be Understood About Vindictive Laughter?

The Cambridge Dictionary, weighing in on the justification of laughing last, notes that if you succeed, despite others’ assuming you’ll fail, then those critical of your ideas will finally get their comeuppance.

And it provides a forceful example of this victory: “She was fired from the company last year, but she had the last laugh when she was hired by their main rival at twice the salary.”

All the same, it might be added that playing “tit for tat” can take you down to the same level as those who taunted you. So “returning the favor” (yet another idiom—and our language is teeming with them) isn’t particularly admirable either.

In fact, getting the last laugh can be as ruthlessly competitive, aggressive, antagonistic, combative, and even cutthroat as those who laughed at you earlier. For the many synonyms linked to this phenomenon include conquer, trounce, vanquish, blow away, and take it all.

Moreover, quotations pertinent to this intriguing subject generally include some that aren’t very flattering. Take, for instance, these three egotistical citations:

“He who last laughs, laughs the haughtiest.” — Louise Rennison

And here, some of the harsher synonyms for laughing might be noted—like snickering and sniggering, implying laughter that’s condescending, insulting, and disrespectful—not to mention cackling—a shrill, sadistic laugh often associated with spiteful, malevolent witches.]

“I may never let go of my wrath, my anger, but I will always have the last laugh.” — Corey Taylor

“The deed is done but the show isn’t over. You might smile now but the last laugh will be mine. I know I lost but it was a lesson I learned, and victory will be mine, though now I do whine.” — Rohit Sachdeva

To conclude, this laughing-last expression at its best indicates how earlier feelings of hurt from being made fun of can potentially transform into feelings of gratification in proclaiming one’s competence, dignity, and self-respect.

I’ll end here with a quote that, humorously, should merit both a smile and a chuckle:

"Some people called me fish lips because I had these really full lips. Now I’m sure all of those same girls are getting collagen injections, so I’m having the last laugh." — Denise Richards

© 2022 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.



Ambadar, Z., Cohn, J. F., & Reed, L. I. (2009). All smiles are not created equal: Morphology and Timing of Smiles perceived as amused, polite, and embarrassed/Nervous. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 33(1), 17-34. doi: 10.1007/s10919-008-0059-5

Paul Ekman Group (2023). Science of smiling: Different types of smiles.

Rychlowska, M., Jack, R. E., Garrod, G. B., Schyns, P. G., Martin, J. D., & Niedenthal, P. M. (2017), Functional smiles: Tools for love, sympathy, and war. Psychological Science. 28(9),1259-1270. doi: 10.1177/0956797617706082

Singh, M. (2019, Jul 1). The science of smiles, real and fake.


Barker, L. A. (2017, May 1). The science of laughter—and why it also has a dark side.

Curran, W., McKeown, G. J., Rychlowska, M., André, E., Wagner, J., & Lingenfelser, F. (2018, Jan 12). Social context disambiguates the interpretation of laughter.

More from Leon F Seltzer PhD
More from Psychology Today