Laughing when nothing’s funny: The pragmatic use of coping laughter in the negotiation of conversational disagreement

Shawn Warner-Garcia

Abstract

Laughter is primarily a social phenomenon and used as a resource for managing social relationships and identities. While it is often unplanned and uncensored, laughter is also strategically produced at particular moments to accomplish particular goals in interaction. In this article, I examine the ways in which laughter – specifically, what I call coping laughter – is utilized to manage the face-threatening relational aspects of disagreements rather than to deal with the actual content of disputes. The four specific functions of coping laughter that I analyze are (1) face-threat mitigation, (2) face-loss concealment, (3) serious-to-nonserious frame switch, and (4) topic transition facilitation. Which of these functions are accomplished varies depending on several contextual factors, including who initiates the laughter, how other participants respond to the laughter, and the overarching context and participant roles at play in the interaction. I discuss each of these influencing factors and the associated interactional functions of coping laughter in relation to the data I analyze. I argue that coping laughter is an efficient and effective strategy for dealing with the interactional trouble caused by a disagreement without dealing with its content.

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