We’ve all had the experience of being laughed at by our friends, co-workers, and certainly our family members. Occasionally, you may even recall being laughed at by a stranger for some social gaffe or, perhaps, wardrobe malfunction. Being laughed at by others can be a miserable experience. Call it bullying, teasing, or mocking out, serving as the butt of someone else's humor is very tough on the psyche. What's worse, this kind of mistreatment by others can lead people to become anxious and fearful of being exposed to the situation again. At the same time, you start to wonder whether there's something wrong with you and so start to question your own personal qualities.
University of Zurich researchers René Proyer and Willibald Ruch first identified the components and correlates of “gelotophobia” (literally, fear of laughter) in a 2009 publication along with dozens of collaborators from all over the world. This multinational study involved over 22,000 adults in 73 countries, included 93 samples and involved a questionnaire translated into 42 languages. Subsequently, in a 2012 publication, they’ve shown just how harmful gelotophobia can be to its victim’s mental health.
In extreme form, fear of embarrassing yourself in conducting everyday tasks can take the form of social anxiety disorder in DSM-5, but formerly called social phobia. Although gelotophobia doesn’t have the status of a diagnosable condition, if experienced to an extreme degree, it theoretically could be considered a form of “specific phobia, other.” To be regarded as having this disorder, you would need to meet a host of other criteria including marked fear or anxiety almost always provoked by the situation, leading you to avoid those situations. You also would have to show these emotions to a degree that is out of proportion to reality, the fear would have to last for at least six months, and it would have to impair your ability to function on a daily basis.
Proyer and Ruch decided that even if fear of being laughed at was not going to merit its own diagnosis, it could still qualify as a condition that could be damaging to a person’s happiness. Surprisingly, in reviewing a large variety of sources, including the popular press, they identified no less than 102 different reasons to be laughed at. Their 2009 study put the concept of gelotophobia to a test that we rarely see in psychology, which is to examine cross-national variations in a particular realm of behavior. Not only do we rarely encounter cross-national studies, but it’s also unusual to find studies conducted on non-university samples of adults. In the case of an experience such as fear of being laughed at, the question almost begs being raised in college campuses, where hazing and bullying are all too common occurrences. As you’ll learn, however, the fear of being teased or joked about extends into almost every nook and cranny of the globe and among all age groups.
Before we get to the results of this fascinating study and its follow-up investigating mental health implications, let’s take a look at the questions. The “GELOPH,” as it’s called, is a survey instrument that asks respondents to use a 4-point rating scale to indicate their agreement or disagreement with 15 items dealing with situations potentially involving being laughed at. Take this test yourself (or the online version) and then you can see how you compare to your global neighbors (this is a slightly altered version of the published test to improve the English translation):
- When people laugh in my presence, I get suspicious.
- I avoid displaying myself in public because I fear that people could become aware of my insecurity and could make fun of me.
- When strangers laugh in my presence, I often relate this to me personally.
- It is difficult for me to make eye contact because I fear to be assessed in a disparaging way.
- When others make joking remarks about me, I feel paralyzed.
- I control myself in order not to attract negative attention so I do not make a ridiculous impression.
- I believe that I involuntarily make a funny impression on others.
- Although I frequently feel lonely, I have the tendency not to share social activities in order to protect myself from derision.
- When I have made an embarrassing impression somewhere, I avoid the place thereafter.
- If I did not fear making a fool of myself, I would speak much more in public.
- If someone has teased me in the past, I cannot deal freely with him from that point on.
- It takes me very long to recover from having been laughed at.
- While dancing, I feel uneasy because I am convinced that those watching me assess me as being ridiculous.
- Unless I’m careful, I’m at risk to attract negative attention and appear peculiar to others.
- When I have made a fool of myself in front of others, I grow completely stiff and lose my ability to behave normally.
In comparing the 93 samples, Proyer and Ruch found that across all countries, the items were inter-related in a similar way, suggesting that the concept of gelotophobia has cross-national validity. However, even taking language into account, the cross-national differences in percent agreeing with each item were striking. The highest endorsement (i.e. people saying “agree”) was on the first item among individuals living in Thailand. A whopping 80% said that they were felt they had to avoid drawing attention to themselves in public for fear of being ridiculed. Among Americans, people living in Cincinnati were least likely to agree with this item tapping the fear of drawing attention to yourself, as well item 12, indicating how long it takes to recover from being laughed at. Item #13 produced some interesting results. Americans living in Florida were the least likely of anyone in the world to say they felt ridiculous while dancing.
Across all countries, the most common form that gelotophobia takes is to engage in this kind of heavy self-editing (item 6), to avoid speaking in public (item 10), to get suspicious when others laugh in your presence (item 1), and to avoid going back to a place where you were laughed at before. There were, in addition, country-wide differences not explained by language. Among Spanish speakers, for example, people living in Argentina showed different gelotophobic responses than people living in Spain. However, there is no country in which citizens appear to be universally embarrassed or afraid of being laughed at. As the authors point out, as well, country- and culture-wide differences may also occur due to differences in the extent to which shame is a form of social control.
Further analyses allowed Proyer and Ruch to develop two basic dimensions of gelotophobia, namely avoidance (and restriction of one’s own movements) and suspiciousness. People living in Cambodia and Turkmenistan were highest on avoiding others to avoid being laughed at and those in Iraq and Egypt the least. Highest in the suspiciousness dimension were people in Burkino Faso and Thailand, and lowest were those in Cambodia, Scotland, and Ukraine.
No matter where you live, however, it is likely that the feeling of being laughed at can cause you to experience personal distress. Proyer, Ruch, and Chen (2012) compared adults living in Austria, China, and Switzerland and found that, across the board, the so-called “gelotophobes” are indeed unhappier. They are less likely to feel engaged in their life activities and believe that their lives have less pleasure and meaning. It’s hard to experience life satisfaction when you don’t want to express your “true” self for fear of being made fun of, or when you believe that other people are ready to laugh at you behind your back.
The upshot of this study is that if you want to maximize your own fulfillment, take stock of your own fear of being made fun of. Once you’ve made that assessment, confide in people who truly care about you (and won’t laugh at you) about your fears, should you have them. You may find out that you’ve been wrong all along and that your nearest and dearest regard you, and your possible foibles, with affection and appreciation. You may even find out that those people you thought were laughing at you were actually laughing at someone else, or maybe nothing particular at all.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Proyer, R. T., Ruch, W., Ali, N. S., Al-Olimat, H. S., Amemiya, T., Adal, T., & ... Ja Yeun, E. (2009). Breaking ground in cross-cultural research on the fear of being laughed at (gelotophobia): A multinational study involving 73 countries. Humor: International Journal Of Humor Research, 22(1-2), 253-279. doi:10.1515/HUMR.2009.012
Proyer, R. T., Ruch, W., & Chen, G. (2012). Gelotophobia: Life satisfaction and happiness across cultures. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 25(1), 23-40.