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Conversation: Wouldn't It Be Funny If...

The comical hypothetical warms friendships with humor and imagination.

Recently, my friends Theresa and Joe were visiting me in Chicago, and I mentioned a neighborhood here known for being both a lesbian and Swedish part of town. That combination got a smile from my guests, so I added, "The lesbians and Swedes have coexisted peacefully for over five centuries."

Joe then jumped in with, "Right, the Swedish-Lesbian War of 1400... " Theresa turned historian: "The lesbians were more committed to the cause—and each other." Finally, Joe said of this military conflict, "That would make a great graphic novel by Frank Miller."

This kind of outrageous—yet common—verbal play is a comical hypothetical (CH)—a conversational phenomenon named by Michaela Winchatz and Alexander Kozin in the journal Discourse Studies.

CHs usually start with a line like "Just imagine" or "What if" and progress to—as the researchers put it—"highly improbable scenarios" that are often collaboratively created. For example, in one observed group, chitchat about a trip began a bizarre conversation involving "40 years in the wilderness" and the founding of a cannibalistic, secret society.

CHs serve several functions, such as showing off cultural knowledge (as in Joe's mentioning comic book artist Frank Miller), and reinforcing the bonds of friendship: If you're willing to play along with my silliness about the Swedish-Lesbian War, then we must be friends.