Often, the language that laughter exists as is freedom. A laugh is a small freedom to practice every day.
Laughter is one of those human behaviors that grows equally enigmatic and decipherable, the more I think about it. The phenomenon of laughter itself is delightfully strange, no? Because fundamentally, what is laughter? An action, or rather a reaction. But you can’t teach someone laughter—laughter is contagious, but cannot truly exist as a performative gesture. In other words, laughter isn’t the control of a muscle, similar to the movements of a frown or smile. True, it may be manipulated and feigned when necessary, but the ingenuity of a false laugh can be easily spotted: it is either too rough, too harsh, or doesn’t carry the same buoyancy of genuine laughter. But no one teaches us how to spot the characteristics of a fake laugh. Neither can we say we truly understand the genesis of a fake laugh and how that differs from the origins of a true laugh, but what we can say is that we can recognize and bifurcate these laughs because we recognize them as products of a reaction, as consequences of a situation. And yet, I emphasize again, no one goes into our minds and ingrains this understanding within us. Then perhaps laughter is one of the most human instincts we possess.
Laughter is quite often regarded as a dismissible element in conversation. It is seen as an interruption to conversation, or a supplement to words that already exist. It serves only as a transitory element of conversations, as it makes way for more words, allowing the speaker to stall so that the formation of further language can take shape and come into existence. A laugh alone is not enough to change a person of their current and more volatile disposition, and a laugh by itself is not enough to convey the twists and turns of a comprehensive argument. But the fact is, a laugh exists at the crossroads of incongruity. In other words, a laugh is the precursor to a transformation or a shift in temperament and its prevalence indicates sudden escalations and changes in a manner that no word or sentence can. In this way, I think laughter can entirely supplant words and existence as its own language.
And often, the language that laughter exists as is freedom. A laugh is a small freedom to practice every day. It is so because by laughing, you are inadvertently breaking away from something, namely a composed state of behavior that you are intended (and taught) to constantly practice and reinforce throughout the trials of the day. To laugh, then, is defy the expectations of perfection and consistency. It is to command the air and atmosphere around you, to guard your presence and claim your livelihood in an unshakable performance.
Because of this quality, I agree laughter is truly exceptional. Think of the feeling received from genuine, unanticipated laughter—the kind that stirs the entire body to a sudden and sweet wakefulness, that compels the body to crumple, tighten and shiver along with it. How it is that something so light and harmless is able to seize control of the entire geography of a person and suspend, even temporarily, all other thoughts and activities of the body at that moment it is deployed?
This is still a mystery to me, but what also intrigues me about laughter is the circumstances for which it has arisen in me, in my personal life.
To be frank with you, as a person I’m told that I laugh too often and too loud. I suspect this behavior is not for the sake of laughter itself, but rather that it has its originations in many different, difficult reasons and as such, creates a lot of consequences for me, both unintentional and intentional.
Here’s what I mean: for me, and many others as I’ve observed, laughter exists as a tool for relief for the self (and more specifically for the emotional self, as this is what gets wounded, coiled, and compressed throughout the day and demands consistent and violent bouts of relief). At the same time, however, laughter, I believe, is equally wielded (if not, more) as a tool to protect the self. In other words, laughter is very much weaponized and is most effective as a sharp object that is ready to gracefully lick whatever it touches.
As a supplement to this belief, think of the situations in which laughter can shield or deflect words that arise from uncomfortable and dangerous territory. For example, a creepy, long-limbed man with sleepy eyes is hitting on you and the laughter that emerges from you is bitter, slow, dismissive. In my case, the times that a man or a figure of authority (or both) has backed me into a corner and has demanded from me something I’m not comfortable sharing, I react immediately with unwarranted laughter. Bits of it will slip from me, in between the words of denial that I uneasily pry from my lips for fear of causing an adverse reaction. It’s as if, in this frame of time, my laughter is both insulating an unfavorable opinion from being attached to my name, as well as steering me out of, or at worst, stalling me from progressing further into an uncomfortable situation. As a final example: the times when someone—again, a man—says something to alarm me, which often is an indirect sexualization of my body, or a policing of my body, or suggestions that are of equivalence, the laughter that arises from me will be panic laughter. The laughter of a prey just realizing the innate constraints and weakness of its body.
I do not forgive myself for the laughter that comes out of me, but I think I understand why I react the way I do. Laughter, I realize, is my defense mechanism; it’s my grip against the slippery foothold I’ve been positioned on. Laughter, for me, is not a precise weapon that is capable of shedding blood. Rather, it is a dull blade that, though not sharp, can still graze the skin.
It is rather disappointing and intriguing for me to say that as a woman, laughter has emerged at the best defense for me because it allows me to maneuver around and subvert what pre-established positions I find myself in without having to be straightforward or confrontational and outrightly disobey my opposer, assailant, or violator. I understand that this isn’t right; laughter should not supplant a lack of consent. Forgive me, but I don’t know where the words and smarts flee off to in those moments. And as such, laughter gives me the illusion of mitigating fear, of convincing me that in the situations where I am violated, that I still have some region of control (this deliberately feeds into the idea of necessary and instantaneous relief).
In this sense, laughter is the best remedy for unanticipated situations. It appears deceptively kind. Else, it saves face and takes up space for the words and communication that you find reluctant to deliver, but should nonetheless be vocalized. But in offering you what you think is protection, laughter can wrongfully deliver a message and its protective nature is subsequently misconstrued with other implications: namely interest, flirtatious intentions, etc. So while laughter in nature is defensive, to those who cannot interpret the real meaning of a laugh in the context which it arises out of, or perhaps those who entirely ignore this to instead interpret a laugh according to what they want to hear and see, your defense mechanism can bite you back and dig you deeper into a grave you are frantically trying to get out of.
Because of this, I realize two things: the beauty and horrific traits of laughter when it exists as a threat. At its best, laughter as a threat can be useful when you are the one in control of it. In this case, it can tactfully startle your opponent, catch someone off guard, even heighten you to states of confidence you never knew you possessed. At its worst, laughter as a threat can be merciless and blindly, but purposely destructive, especially when used again you. Often, people’s worst nightmare and most unbearable social memories involve being laughed at by large groups of individuals. Laughter here is the rabid dog that tears at the flesh, that grips the person by the wound and rips and pries until your anatomy is distorted in terrible proportions (you get what I mean).
The situation of group laughter against an individual, which demonstrates laughter as a method of both external and internal shame and humiliation leads me to believe that for the most laughter is a very public act and a strategy for indirect socialization. I think that makes sense, especially when you notice the ways laughter is wielded, leveraged, or shared mostly in conversation where it shares the sentiments of “against” or “with” a person or a group of people.
This leads me to a note I’ve observed and that ties directly to the concept of laughter as a social tool. What I’ve been duly aware of is that many women are taught to believe that they innately owe something to others (namely men), and that something obligatory is demanded of them in terms of dispositions and behavior. They feel they can’t hurt anyone or make someone else feel bad, even if it inadvertently harms them or places them in a more dangerous orientation. Before I introduce where laughter exists as a social tool here, let me preface this by saying that for us women, laughter seems to be the most non-controversial strategy of protecting ourselves without outrightly expressing disapproval. It even allows us to feign confidence within ourselves and lends us a degree of control. It further helps to diffuse rising aggressions demonstrates against us. In this way, laughter (in a situation where a woman is pitted against a man) can be a way to equalize the playing field.
Think about collective female laughter. A deadly and gorgeous weapon, if I do say so. Collective female laughter, a social tool, is a way for us females to temporarily overturn social hierarchies. We are adept at stinging a target and using laughter as a collective judgement and ridicule for behavior we look down upon (as an example, a man verbally abusing his partner in public). In this way, I think females have learned to cultivate and weaponize laughter in ways men cannot. As a mechanism, I realize that laughter cannot cancel out stratifications and tyrannies, but they certainly can shake the ground that society has built for us and bullied us into walking along.
After realizing all this, I guess, was when I saw that laughter is truly the most flexible behavior I had ever encountered. It has been timelessly molded to fit standards of praise and disapproval, it reflects both intelligence and incredible stupidity (think of the awe and intelligence that arises when seeing an animal perform laughter versus the trademark “airhead” who laughs aimlessly at any thought), and it possesses an exceptional duality when it regarded as either a weapon for destruction or a tool for peace. Does any behavior or action yield the same sheer variety of interpretations and uses?
I think we collectively need to listen more to laughter and identify: what types of laughter do we hear, where do we think these originate from, what can they tell us that words and facial expressions are unable to share, and what ways to laugh disrupt and overturn daily occurrences as we know it?
For these reasons, I don’t believe I will temper my laughter anytime soon. So if you can’t handle and appreciate the existence and dimensions of laughter, well I—
So it goes.