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Responses To Failed Humour

Language in Society: 2nd Year Presentation
by

Chaz Rivers

on 22 January 2013

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Transcript of Responses To Failed Humour

Study Outline "Understanding how and why humor fails is not only an area worthy of inquiry in itself, but is also important to understanding how and when humor succeeds." (Bell. N, 2009)

The researcher mentions multiple times that this topic has had little work performed on it in the past. In the introduction Bell references a piece of work from 2005 by another researcher, in which they agree that it there is "an important gap in current research" (Attardo. S, 2005) with regards to this topic. Aims of the Research In the abstract of the article, it states, "the study of failed humor has continued to be neglected" (Bell. N, 2009). It goes on to explain that the aim of the study is to create an in depth analysis about this topic. The researcher used a "corpus of 186 responses of failed humor" (Bell. N, 2009), and these were responses to what was described as a bad joke for most people.

The responses were noted down as either positive, negative or neutral. Gender, age and social relationship were also taken into consideration. Introduction My chosen research article is on the topic of responses to failed humor and comes from The Journal of Pragmatics. It was carried out by Nancy D. Bell and was published in 2009.

In this presentation I will go on to explain what the goals of this study were, how the research was completed, the good and bad parts of the methods used and my personal view on the topic. Previous Studies "Discourse analytic studies of humor in social interaction have revealed the wide range of responses that may follow a humorous utterance, severing the longstanding link between humor and laughter". (Bell. N, 2009) This was the first part of Bell's study, to look at previous work on this topic.

Drew (1987) - Teasing;
- Receivers laughed, but alongside this gave a serious reply that was an aim to correct the speaker.
- Recipients also just disregarded the statement as wrong without laughing. Just defending themselves was more common as a response.

Attardo (2001) - Ironical Utterances;
- As well as laughing and the response, people used a "mode adopt".
- This meant that the respondent sometimes played along with it and carried on the joke. Hay (2001) - Interlocutors supporting humor in conversation;
- Repeating what has been said
- Adding more jokes to the interaction
- "She demonstrated that reactions even to failed humor are more varied than previously thought" (Bell. N, 2009)
- Statements to show understanding of the joke, or statements to show that the receiver did not find the joke amusing are common.
- When someone is obviously trying to tell a joke, the recipient may use silence to show they disapprove. Methods Used - Bell defined failed humor as, "an utterance that was recognised as an attempt at humor, and understood, but was not appreciated. " (Bell. N, 2009)

- Responses where the receiver of the joke did not understand it were taken out of the study.

- The joke that was used was;

"What did the big chimney say to the little chimney?
... Nothing. Chimneys can't talk." (Bell. N, 2009) by Charlie J A Rivers Responses To Failed Humor This joke was used as it was;

- Easy to understand for middle class communities (the sample for the study)
- No offence can be caused by it
- It's "likely to fail" (Bell. N, 2009)

The conversation with the respondent could also be adapted to include this joke. Any object brought up in the speech that could not speak, could be used in the context of this joke. A response can be taken from this part of the conversation and speech will still remain natural. Data Collectors 6 Graduates and 27 Undergraduates were selected from two different universities to help carry out this research. These students were, or had been, studying a Sociolinguistics course and their ages ranged from 18 to Mid-50's. The data was collected between March and October in the year of 2007.

A handout was given to these students to tell them how and when to record the data. Role plays were also acted out to show them examples of when a response should not be recorded.

They were told that they had to record the exact response after they had told the joke. The sex and gender of the participant were noted alongside the answer, as well as their social relationship with the researcher. An approximation of their age was also taken down.

"Investigators were also instructed to note when they interpreted an apparently appreciative response as merely 'polite'." (Bell. N, 2009)
This was completed to show that the humor had failed even though the respondent had seemed to approve of the joke through the reply they gave. The researcher would add a note explaining that they thought it was just the respondent trying not to offend them. "Data were coded according to the type of response"
(Bell. N, 2009) - The coding system that was used came from the data collected in the research.

- Categories from previous studies were used as a starting point.

- Responses categorised into Positive, Negative or Neutral.

- The data collected were coded by an outsider and "intercoder reliability was calculated as good using Cohen's kappa." (Bell. N, 2009)

- When the collected data had been coded, they were examined looking at gender, age and social relationship. The Data "In general the elicited responses conform to expectations that respondents signal their recognition and understanding of a joke, while at the same time expressing their lack of appreciation" (Bell. N, 2009) 86% of Responses = Showed that they recognised the joke and their response showed that they understood it.
14% of Responses = Recognised the attempt of a joke, but replied with minimal responses. Table 1. Response types. N %
Laughter 69 37.1
Metalinguistic 60 32.3
Interjection 35 19.4
Evaluation 28 15.0
Rhetorical question 15 8.1
Sarcasm 12 6.5
Nonverbal response 11 5.9
Fake laughter 10 5.4
Joke question/comment 7 3.8
Mode adoption 6 3.2
Directive 5 2.7
Topic change 2 1.1
Groaning 1 .5
Note: Total is greater than the number of tokens, as multiple strategies were sometimes used. Laughter is something that is associated with the use of humor, but not failed humor. However in this research, laughter is the most common response to the joke used. The respondent laughs in over one third of the data collected.

When a respondent laughs, it shows that they have understood that the statement has been an attempt at humor and "can soften any negative evaluation that is also present in the response" (Bell. N, 2009)

An example of this from the data:
(1) I (Investigator) = male, early 30s;
R (Respondent) = female, late 20s, close friend
Response: (laughs) (pause) oh god (puts hand to head and shakes head) The layout of the example of the data collected in the previous slide, was how each response was recorded.

In the journal, an example of each of the responses listed in the table is looked into at greater length. Bell concludes about the data that;

"In general these response types combined with others, such as metalinguistic or otherwise evaluative comments, to achieve the effect of demonstrating the hearer's identification and understanding of the joke text, while also conveying lack of amusement" (Bell. N, 2009)

She explains that some of the response types listed, such as topic changing or directives can be seen in a different way, and not a failed attempt at humor. However this is how the data collectors perceived the response, seeing it as a negative reply to the joke. Sociolinguistic Variables Age =

- Youngest age group (18-29), showed the highest percentage of negative responses.
- The oldest age group (50-89), had the highest percentage of neutral reactions to the joke.

"These figures suggest a generational difference, or perhaps a shift, as individuals grow older, toward a preference for positive (or polite, in a non-technical sense) responses to failed humor" (Bell. N, 2009) Gender:

- Differences between the two genders were too small to be significant when comparing the data. However, men provided more negative responses than women overall, 8.8% more, and women provided a higher percentage of positive responses.

- "These findings suggest that gender may not be a particularly important variable in responses to failed humor" (Bell. N, 2009)

Social Relationship:

- The respondents fell into three groups, Strangers, Acquaintances & Intimates.

- The strangers and the acquaintances showed greater use of neutral responses to the joke. Intimates however opted to use the negative response types more often.

- Positive responses were low across all three of the groups but Strangers had the highest percentage of these used, with nearly 33%. Research Summary "Because failed humor is an area in which very little research has been conducted, for this study I opted to focus exclusively on responses to failed humor. The results have demonstrated that although a wide variety of response types occur, most responses do clearly communicate recognition, comprehension, and lack of appreciation of the attempted humor" (Bell. N, 2009)

Previous literature and stereotypes have often said that the usual responses to a poor joke or any attempt at humor, can be a fake laugh, or groaning. But in this research these are both shown towards the bottom of the response table.

Age and Gender as Sociolinguistic variables did not show any obvious differences of the responses. The Social Relationship of the respondent with the data collector however did show some significant differences that could be analysed. It showed that the closer the two people who exchange a moment of failed humor, the more likely that the response is going to be one of a blunt and negative kind. Positives & Negatives of the Study This research topic is a subject that has had a very sparse amount of investigation into it in the past. It is refreshing to see a topic in linguistics different from other subjects.

The joke that was used in the research is a good example to use, the way it can be adapted into any conversation is perfect for reducing the effect of the researcher. In conversations between those grouped as Intimates, the researcher does not even have to say when the research is being carried out as they would be having plenty of conversations. However with strangers, it would be a one off conversation where the respondent would know they are participating in a piece of research.

186 respondents is a fairly large sample to use, and through this generalisations and trends could be drawn from the data. In areas such as Social Relationship, interesting comparisons were made with reference to how close the participants were to one another. However with an even larger sample than this, and consequently more data on age and gender, more significant comparisons and differences could be drawn in these areas.

Another area in which Bell's research made me think, was when she discussed the data and mentioned minimal responses to the joke. She wrote, "It may of course be argued that a minimal response is in itself a kind of implicit evaluation, and indeed the data collectors perceived these responses as indicating a lack of appreciation for the joke" (Bell. N, 2009)

This topic interested me as when seeing the title of the research, it made me think about how I respond when I do not find something funny that one of my friends has said. I also thought that with a deeper look into research of responses to failed humor it would make me notice and understand responses when I make jokes. It was interesting to see the research that had been completed by others before this piece, and how this fairly recent study compared alongside them. References Attardo, S. (2005) Humor. In: Blommaert, J. Bulcaen, C. Ostman, J & Vershueren, J. Handbook of Pragmatics. 2nd Edition. John Benjamins, Amsterdam, pp. 1-18.

Bell, N. (2009) Responses to failed humor. Journal of Pragmatics. 49 (1), 1825-1836.

Drew, P. (1987) Po-faced receipts of teases. Linguistics. 25 (1), 219-253.

Hay, J. (2001) The pragmatics of humor support. Humor: International Journal of Humor Studies. 14 (1), 55-82.
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