Sociology of Emotion

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What do Laughing and Crying have in common?

The most obvious factor crying and laughter share is they are both expressions of emotion. From a child's perspective, crying is seen as an expression of sadness, whereas laughing an expression of joy or humour. Hence the latter is seen a positive response and the former a negative one. Crying can convey many feelings, such as; grief, fear, sadness, loss, despair. Laughter can convey profoundly different feelings such as; humour, love, happiness, joy. Both expressions are involuntary. As children, we cannot help but laugh at the same time we cannot help but cry in certain situations. As adults, we are to some extent able to restrain from public shows of emotion, especially laughing at inappropriate times or crying publicly, even though the urge may be there. From an adult perspective, the boundaries are not so clear. The expression I have to laugh otherwise I will end up crying' is often used. In addition, it is also known that intense feelings of joy can also lead to tears.

Therefore, both emotions are sometimes used where you would expect by their definition they would not be. It is also important to take into consideration the meanings behind the emotions to be able to understand why each is expressed where. Crying and laughing therefore must have certain commonalities to be expressed in this way. I will be exploring various theories that enable me to reflect upon these similarities.

Laughter is most commonly associated with humour. I find a particular situation, joke or story amusing; therefore, I cannot help but laugh. There are various theories behind why certain factors result in laughter.

The superiority theory (also sometimes referred to as the degradation theory) is the oldest theory on laughter. It has its basis in the writings of ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle (Billig 2005). The period in which they wrote reflected their ideas. It was a time when it was perfectly acceptable to laugh at the misfortune of others, which would be deemed rather distasteful now (Billig 2005).

Laughter for Plato was something that could be used to control. It was not appropriate for those in charge to be laughing uncontrollably, nor was it appropriate for a slave to think they could laugh in the presence of or with those with a higher social status. The slave should control their laughter when in the presence of authority or those with a higher social status as a mark of respect. The ones with the higher status should be seen to be serious people worthy of respect (Billig 2005).

Aristotle was also from the same school of thought, he believed the free man should use irony and eschew buffoonery' (Billig 2005:44). He believed irony and wit were decent forms of humour for the gentlemen and buffoonery a cheap laugh for a not so civilised audience. For Aristotle it was the factor that distinguishes taste and class. (Billig 2005)

What matters is the purpose to which laughter is put. Because so much of humanity laughs at the wrong sorts of things and seems to delight in unseemly bawdiness the scope of laughter has to be limited. Purposeless laughter or laughter for it's own sake is condemned.' Billig (2005:49) on Plato and Aristotle

According to Billig, this is not the case now, the value of equality creates ideological dilemmas in conditions of inequality' (2005:46). We are now all free to laugh at whatever we may find amusing with/at whomever we are laughing at.

The superiority tradition or theory is most commonly associated with Thomas Hobbes, it purports that laughter results when we perceive ourselves to be superior in some respects to those whom we are laughing at. Laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception with the infirmity of others, or with our formerly.' (Hobbes 1840:46) Hobbes believes that it is the misfortunate of others and the fact that we are able to laugh when factors we believe to be beneath us cause us to do so. It is the motivation behind the laughter that Hobbes speaks of. Unlike Plato and Aristotle's ideas of what we should and should not laugh at, Hobbes speaks of the reason why we cannot help but laugh. It is how we perceive ourselves that will make us laugh at one misfortunate occurrence rather than another. Similarly, crying also is deeply connected with our identity.
crying says something along the lines of: "I'm touched with a special force. I am moved to unusual depth. What's going on now hits me just where I live. Something has struck at one of the primordial homes of my identity."' (Katz 1999:175)

Humour is here used to form a bond or allegiance. For example when a person laughs at such a joke they are conveying to the person who has brought their attention to such a situation that they are the same sort of person; both revel in their superiority.

Hobbes seems to forget the innocent laughter of children here conveniently (Lippitt 1992). It is highly unlikely that a four-year-old child will laugh when/because they see themselves as superior to the object of their laughter

The release tradition goes towards explaining innocent laughter as well as other forms of laughter. It is the nervous/physical energy that is discharged through laughter. Sigmund Freud puts jokes in two categories, the innocent and the tendentious.

The pleasure derived from the former is normally less than that form the latter. This is because the pleasure attainable from innocent jokes comes from their technique alone the jokes are indulged in for their own sake whereas tendentious jokes have a purpose as well as technique.' Lippitt (1992: 202) on Freud.

More pleasure is derived through tendentious jokes as opposed to innocent ones. A tendentious joke fulfils two functions, it is either a hostile joke (serving the purpose of aggressiveness, satire, or defence) or an obscene joke (serving the purpose of exposure)' (Freud 1976 [1905]:140).

According to Freud (1976) [1905], tendentious jokes allow us to express our aggression and sexual desires, which are repressed in the society, which we live; it would not be civilised to express these feelings. The obstacles which prevent us from doing this in civilised society are internal and external. The internal obstacle being our own civilities, our aversion to obscenity and violence. The external obstacles being are inability to act aggressively or indecently with an authority figure for instance. A tendentious joke either saves us from having to create the inhibition necessary for self restraint, or allows an already existing inner obstacle to be overcome and the inhibition lifted.' (Lippitt 1992: 202) It is the technique of the joke, which provides us, with a small amount of pleasure, the fore-pleasure' (Freud 1976 [1905]:188) which then enables us to overcome our inhibitions and derive enjoyment where normally we would not be able. The physical activity that would have gone toward fulfilling our aggressive or sexual desires manifests itself in laughter. It is the same for innocent jokes, it is the silliness we enjoy but do not partake in. The physical energy we store is then released in laughter, for instance John Cleese's infamous walk on the Monty Python show.

It is vital to mention that negative emotions' such as anger/violence can be expressed by both laughter and crying. "Weeping very often primarily represents an attempt to deal with aggressive energy by dissipating it in harmless secretory behaviour". (Lofgren 1966:380) It is not just laughter that can provide our repressed emotions with a release.

Tears or crying can be used in the same way according to Sartre. Sartre (1977) [1945] believes that humans have a choice in how they act. Even by not making the choice, we are in fact making one nonetheless, not to choose (although the decision not to choose may be in bad faith). He purports, when the paths traced out become too difficult, or when we see no path, we can no longer live in so urgent and difficult world. All the ways are barred. However, we must act' (Sartre 1948:58). According to the release theory, we are unable to act in accordance with our desires due to internal and external obstacles, thus we use laughter. In the same way when things are too difficult we must act', a release is required to express these emotions, thus we cry.

In this way, whether crying and laughter are used as a mechanism to overcome our external' and internal' obstacles or as a tool to diffuse our negative emotions in both instances, they are expressed toward a positive function. Words become insufficient, whether it be because we are embarrassed, in the case of Freud's sexual and violent desires or unable or unwilling to express our thoughts, like in the case of Sartre. Both emotions release us from the need to explain ourselves. We are protected, even if we are using tears to manipulate or to control (Neu 2000). Commonly when asked why we laugh at a joke or story we reply, because it is funny! In the same way why when we cry, we respond, because it makes us sad. There is no further explanation needed. Even if we go toward explaining the joke or sad story, we are still taking away the emotionality replacing it with a matter of fact answer.

Whilst I am on the topic of jokes or fictions that make a person laugh, it is pertinent to also mention the similarity between fiction and crying. Jerome Neu (2000) argues that there has been criticism about tears which occur when watching a play for instance. It has been purported as the play is a work of fiction the tears also cannot be real. Neu (2000) argues of course the play is fictional however; the sadness whilst watching said play is real so are the preceding tears. In the same way, jokes although they are fictional lead us to real laughter.

The incongruity theory purports, laughter is an affection arising from a strained expectation being suddenly reduced to nothing' (Kant 1952 [1790]:199). Jokes are arranged as to lead the listener onto the incorrect path, the completion of the joke suddenly makes them realise this. The one they have followed leads them elsewhere not to the punch line of the joke. Schopenhauer is far more succinct in his explanation,

the cause of laughter in every case is simply the sudden perception of the incongruity between a concept and the real objects thought through it in some relation, and laughter itself is just the expression of this incongruity.' (Schopenhauer 1883 [1818]:76)

Theorists have used incongruity to describe many forms of laughter, logical impossibilities, ambiguity, irrelevance. Not to forget general inappropriateness, the linking of disparatesthe collision of different mental spheresthe obtrusion into one context of what belongs in another' (Monro 1951:235). This can be also applied to the motivation behind crying. It is the incongruity between what has happened and what we deem should have happened often reduces us to tears. We can also go back to Sartre here, the paths traced out become difficult, or when we see no path' (Sartre 1948: 58) and Kant's a strained expectation being suddenly reduced to nothing' (Kant 1952 [1790]:199). In both instances we will see laughter or tears, however in both situations there are no choices (though Sartre may have distinct objections here!), there is no path' there is no expectation' left, only loss. We may laugh when our fictional expectations are reduced to nothing' however weeping follows suffering that registers meaningful loss of opportunity or condition' (Barbalet 2005:128)

Initially I purported laughter to be a positive emotion. This is not necessarily the case. The reason behind said laughter can be the result of a negative thought or meaning. For instance, politically incorrect jokes can be very humorous. The intention may be to make another individual laugh however, the joke' literally may not be so amusing when uttered to the person who is the butt of the joke. Even though we know in a literal sense the words may not amuse and be quite offensive, we are still prone to laughter. (I will not tell one of the many I know, to illustrate the point, as I do not want to cause offence. Feel free to laugh at one you already know.)

In the same way, crying is not solely a negative expression of emotion. It can portray profound feels of joy. Even though this is the case, crying is associated with such negative responses from the individual perspective and the perspective of others that it is perceived as something to be ashamed of. Whereas we can laugh openly at crude and offensive jokes and situations, we are unable to treat crying with the same openness. The main similarity here is both emotions can be the result of negativity. It is important to remember however much we try to disown our negative' thoughts or socially unacceptable thoughts they still do exist. It is undeniable that we can be prone to violent, sexually inappropriate, manipulative thoughts. Laughter and crying can both be used in similar ways to not only diffuse but also to release and mask these.

Both emotions can also be used to control. Whether it is to keep a subordinate in their place or to feel superior and unique from those around, or whether it be to use tears to avoid explanation. I have done something appalling and when trying to explain my actions I cry making my words hard to decipher and the person hearing the explanation feel compassion toward me hence treating my actions less harshly (Sartre 1948).

Essentially laughter and crying are both emotions that help us deal with society, both the individuals within said society and the civilisation enforced upon us by the same society. They help us not only express what we consciously know about the internal I' but more importantly, express the repressed emotions we harbour and are not aware of.


Barbalet, Jack (2005) Weeping and Transformation of Self' in Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 35:2 pages 125-141

Billig, Michael (2005) Laughter and Ridicule London: Sage
Freud, Sigmund (1976) [1905] Jokes and their Relation to the unconsciousness Hamondsworth : Penguin books

Hobbes, Thomas (1840) Human nature in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes volume 4, Edited by W. Molesworth, London: Bohn

Kant, Immanuel (1952) [1790] The Critique of Judgement translation by J.C. Meredith, Oxford: Clarendon Press

Katz, Jack (1999) How Emotions Work London: University of Chicago Press

Lippitt, John (1995) Humour in A Companion to Aesthetics, Edited by D. Cooper, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers

Lofgren, L B (1966) On Weeping in British Journal of Psychoanalysis, volume 47, pages 375-383

Monro, D. H. (1951) Argument of Laughter Carlton: Melbourne University Press

Neu, Jerome (2000) A Tear is an Intellectual Thing: The Meaning of Emotion New York: Oxford University Press

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1977) [1945] Existentialism and Humanism translation by Phillip Mairet Brooklyn: Haskell House Publishers Ltd

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1948) The Emotions: Outline of a Theory New York: Philosophical Library

Schopenhauer, A (1883) [1818] The World as Will and Idea translation by R.B Haldane and J. Kemp, London: Routledge

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