Humour is an 'act of aggression'Humour is an act of agression and telling jokes is a method
of reinforcing a social hierarchy, according to a German study.
By Ben Leach
Journal of Pragmatics, suggest that the role of humour is not to make other people laugh as much as it is to make others know who is in charge.
The theory explains why until recently it has been extremely rare for women to tell jokes in front of men, according to Helga Kotthoff of the Frieburg University of Education.
She said: "Those 'on top' are freer to make others laugh. They are also freer to be more aggressive and a lot of what is funny is making jokes at someone else's expense.
"Displaying humour means taking control of the situation from those higher up the hierarchy and this is risky for people of lower status, which before the 1960s meant women rarely made other people laugh - they couldn't afford to.
"Comedy and satire are based on aggressiveness and not being nice," she said. "Until the 1960s it was seen as unladylike to be funny. But even now women tend to prefer telling jokes at their own expense and men tend to prefer telling jokes at other people's expense."
The differences between men and women's ability to become comedians starts very young, she said. Boys as young as four or five tell more jokes while girls tend to be the ones doing the laughing.
But in later age women tend to become funnier because they feel freer to not be seen as ladylike.
She said humour, including teasing, was a mix of 'bonding and biting' and women often use humour to form social bonds with their friends while men often use humour to vent frustration. But both sexes use comedy as a means of controlling others.
She said: "For example, doctors sometimes use humour to comfort patients but also to silence them if, for example, the patient displays too much knowledge of a medical condition.
"Nurses and midwives tend to tell jokes about patients but not when the doctor is present. And when someone initiates a joke they tend to be ignored if they are in the presence of someone of a higher status."
Until the sexual revolution of the 1960s women rarely became comediennes in public or private because most humour is an act of aggression, she said. "A study in the late 1980s showed that men use sexual jokes as a way of verbally undressing a woman who rebuts his advances; his humour was aggressive in essence."
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