The Secret Behind Women's Laughter

There was more smiling but less laughing around men.

Posted Jan 09, 2012

Women's lines have always gotten a laugh—but only in secret. "Secret" meant just what the deodorant ad told us: "Secret" meant "for women only." It's as if women saw the same sort of "glass ceiling" between the kitchen—or the private world of women—and the "upstairs" public world of men as women have seen in the workplace.

Women place restrictions on their behavior because they fear being perceived as too aggressive or because we believe that we cannot act like ourselves in a public setting. It seems as if this anxiety about performing in public has implications for the way women are taught to use—or not to use—humor.

Research suggests women generally rate themselves as most comfortable when telling jokes to a very small group of close friends, where men feel comfortable telling their jokes to groups of a much larger size. This follows the patterns set by traditional expectations that lead us to expect men would necessarily be out in the public world dealing daily with groups of strangers whereas women would inhabit a smaller, essentially private world composed of family, neighbors and friends.

Women also prefer to tell jokes to a group composed of other women. Most of our everyday experiences will confirm this theory. As soon as a man entered the picture, most of us will remember hearing the laughter in all female groups stop altogether or, even more confusingly, "change" into a softer, less active or assertive style.

We began to notice that after a certain age even our brothers weren't safe to laugh around anymore. At about the same time that our brothers could no longer be allowed to go to the ladies' room, the laughter stopped or changed when they were present. It is no surprise, and then, that men thought women had very little sense of humor. They were certainly privy to very little of it. Women's humor was shut away from them, sealed off as tightly as bologna in a Tupperware container, all the better to preserve it for later.

Older women taught us, by their example, the code that indicated when the tone of the conversation had to shift—like a quick change of scenery between acts—to accommodate the arrival of a man.  There was more smiling but less laughing around men. Smiling and laughing represent very different experiences—a smile, especially for a woman, is seen as an act of supplication, where a laugh is often read as a challenge. When we plug in the general, all-purpose smile we signal, effectively, "I'm not looking for trouble. Just be nice to me."

When we smile that all-purpose smile, many of us look down or in some manner avert our gaze so that we do not make direct eye contact. When you laugh with someone, in contrast, the instinctive response is to look directly into the eyes of the person with whom you share that moment.

You've connected. You're standing on the same turf. Laughing together is as close as you can get to a hug without touching.