Can you tell someone’s nationality from the way they laugh?
You’re probably able to ascertain someone’s nationality better by what they laugh at than by the way they laugh. Norwegians laugh at Swedes. Swedes laugh at Norwegians. The French laugh at Jerry Lewis. And if you’re American, you’d better learn to laugh at everything because it’s the only way you’re going to get out of bed these days.
You’re not the first to wonder if our laughs give us away. Disa Sauter, a professor of social psychology at the University of Amsterdam, devised a quiz in which 800 subjects listened to laughs from six different cultural backgrounds—Dutch, French, English, American, Japanese, and a Namibian group called the Himba—and tried to match the chortling to its country of origin. “We found that people are terrible at this,” says Sauter.
In a narrower test, Dutch subjects were unable to identify even the laughs of other Dutchmen. Laughter research is a more robust field than one might think. As we all know but have probably not spent much time considering, laughter comes in two forms: spontaneous (i.e., real laughter, caused by funny jokes or ruthless tickling) and volitional (i.e., a “charity chuckle,” mustered for a dorky dad or preening boss). Genuine laughter emanates from the emotional vocal system, which is common to all mammals and therefore to most people (har-dee-har). Volitional laughter, conversely, comes from the part of the brain that handles speech.
While dads and bosses may pretend to be unable to distinguish between the two, their brains do detect a difference. Nadine Lavan, a neuroscience researcher at Royal Holloway, University of London (England, not Ontario), worked on a study that contrasted the two types of laughter, and found that each activated a different neural network. “Even though the subjects aren’t aware that this is volitional laughter they’re listening to, their brain still goes, ‘Oh, that sounds kind of strange. What’s going on here?’ ” Lavan says.
Given that volitional laughter is akin to speech, and perhaps more subject to cultural influence, might it be easier to detect the national origin of fake merriment? “If anything, people would expect to do better with volitional laughter,” Sauter says, “because that’s influenced more by cultural and social factors.” Still, she’s not optimistic. “I’d be very surprised if people are very good at this.”
All the above suggests that you’d do better to look at the precipitating jest than the resulting guffaw. Here’s an impromptu quiz: Guess the nationality of the person who finds this joke funny.
What do you get when you ask for flounder in a Norwegian fish store? A cod and a hammer.
Now how about this one?
A customer enters a store and asks, “Kan jag få två smörgåsar?” (May I have two sandwiches?) The store clerk asks, “Are you Swedish?” The customer responds, “Er det fordi jag sa ‘smörgåsar’ de skjønnte at jag var svensk?” (Is it because I said “smörgåsar,” the Swedish word for sandwich, that you knew I was a Swede?) “No,” replies the clerk. “It’s because you’re in a hardware store.”
We rest our case.
Do you have unusual questions about how things work and why stuff happens? This is the place to ask them. Don’t be afraid. Nobody will laugh at you here. Email: [email protected]
This appears in the September 2018 issue.