The joke's on you
Having a good giggle is one of the perks of office life, but guffawing at inopportune moments or owning a 'unique' laugh can prove embarrassing, finds Andrew Shanahan
Monday July 31, 2006
'In many ways it would have been better if I hadn't been one of the coffin bearers," explains Jim, shaking his head at the memory. "There were four of us carrying the coffin, one at each corner and just as we got into the church and everyone went quiet, I just felt this laugh bubble up inside of me and it came out. As we walked slowly down the aisle, this thought just kept going round my head - I just laughed at a funeral. I don't know why but that made me laugh more. I tried coughing to make it sound more like a sob but by the time I put the casket down I was more or less laughing out loud. It was really weird."
As Jim found to his cost there are definitely times when laughter is no laughing matter. And while guffawing at funerals might be a fairly rare occurrence, nearly everyone has had an occasion where they have succumbed to an ill-timed fit of the giggles at work. "When we do disciplinaries we try and make them as formal as possible to give the situation more gravitas," explains Samantha, an HR Officer with a pharmaceutical company. "So we have the employee's line manager there and usually someone from the senior management team. One time we were giving this guy a final warning for bullying a junior colleague, and suddenly the managing director just laughed out loud. She put her hand over her mouth and tried to stop but you could see she'd just gone, she had to excuse herself from the room."
Professor Richard Wiseman is a specialist in the psychology of humour from the University of Hertfordshire. He believes that Samantha and Jim's experiences arose from the situations themselves. "The basis of surreal humour such as Monty Python and Spike Milligan is that it is the incongruity of a situation or an event that makes us laugh; there is usually a relatively normal situation but there is always an element which does not fit in. So when you're at an event like a meeting which is all about formality and seriousness, if you do something, or even think about something, that doesn't fit into that environment it can make you laugh. This laughter then feeds on itself because you're then doing something incongruous and that makes you laugh more."
As a practitioner of laughter meditation, Graham leads sessions with a range of groups and companies using laughter to overcome barriers. He believes that, as laughter has such a beneficial effect for the body, the phenomenon of inappropriate laughter might actually result from the body attempting to protect itself. "People often equate laughter with happiness but that's not necessarily true. Laughter is just a physiological response to a trigger, whether that's stress, anxiety or even anger. So it's a very natural response if you're experiencing stress - the release of endorphins when you laugh counteracts that stress in your body."
Scientific research has produced a wealth of evidence that laughter helps to counteract the stress hormone cortisol and even boosts the immune system. Laughter creates greater fluidity in the artery walls, which increases blood flow and provides more oxygen to the whole body, all of which adds credence to the theory that laughter is simply the body's way of ameliorating the stressful effects of situations such as funerals and important meetings. Even before such medical research was widely available, Freud had suggested that laughter was simply a way of releasing inner aggression, a theory which goes some way to explaining the audience reaction at Jim Davidson gigs.
While inappropriate laughter is a problem that we all have to face at some point, there are those individuals who face an even greater challenge: owning an inappropriate laugh. These people are the hearty guffawers and high-pitched snorters who get singled out in comedy clubs throughout the known world. And every office has at least one. For owners of these unique laughs the working day can be a minefield. Beverley Packwood works for a local authority, promoting the benefits of recycling. She describes her laugh as being a Barbara Windsoresque cackle, only louder.
"It can be quite bad to always be the one with the loud laugh. I suppose my main problem is that if people don't know you then it can come across as being quite unprofessional. We're trying to get people to take recycling seriously and I think sometimes if I'm being a bit cackly then it might come across that I'm just having a laugh.
"The worst times are when I'm in a meeting with a contractor and someone will say a joke and it will set me off laughing and when I start laughing I find it very difficult to stop. So I'll be laughing more than everyone else and that makes me laugh even more and after a while the joke clearly wasn't as funny as my laughter is suggesting, but I just can't stop."
But while the owner of a unique laugh may be embarrassed, Graham is always happy to welcome them into his sessions. "In my line of work it's always nice when we get a giggler," he explains. "When one person is laughing out loud then it gives other people the psychological permission to laugh out loud as well and that gives everyone more confidence."
Although most of us would probably agree that having a laugh is one of the most enjoyable aspects of working in an office, Graham says the benefits of laughter go way beyond simple enjoyment and often companies who approach him want to explore what else laughter can do.
"I'm doing a session on Saturday with a company who work in the voluntary sector. It's a stressful job so we'll use the laughter to relax people and get them to feel closer together emotionally. If you share a really good laugh with your team then the barriers start coming down and if you understand your colleagues' humour then you find better ways to work with them.
"In terms of teambuilding, motivation and conflict resolution laughter has great potential. I think it would be beneficial in any job if you can start to incorporate some laughter into your work environment, it's a very natural thing."
Although her laugh might sound unnatural, Packwood says that she doesn't resent being one of life's unique laughers. "I have to say that in my experience having a unique laugh has been a good thing and more often than not people laugh along with me. I'd like to think it was more infectious than it was annoying, so I don't mind being a cackler really."
It might be frustrating to think that you are at the whim of nature as to how your own laugh sounds and when that laughter might emerge from your mouth, but at least you can be comforted by the fact that even the most inappropriate laughter is destressing your body and maintaining your health, even if you are the only one putting the "fun" into funeral.