What Your Laughter Reveals About Your Relationship
Understanding the differences between romantic partner and friendship laughter.
Posted March 26, 2023 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Laughter is a behavior that communicates positive emotions but also information about status, social intent, and relationship affiliation.
- Based on brief segments of laughter, people can tell, with higher than chance accuracy, whether two individuals are friends or romantic partners.
- Friendship laughter, compared to romantic laughter, sounds more authentic, natural, and relaxed.
Laughter is a universally recognizable expression of positive emotion that promotes affiliation and is good for health and relationships. Research shows, for instance, that shared laughter promotes well-being and interpersonal chemistry.
Not all laughs are spontaneous and authentic, however; some can be voluntary and faked. The two types can be differentiated thus:
Compared to genuine laughter, manipulated laughter is characterized by lower arousal, intensity, pitch, variability, and duration. Fake laughter is used for a variety of reasons. For example, to convey information on:
- Social intent (e.g., cooperation, romance)
- Status (e.g., boss, subordinate, coworker)
- Relational affiliation (e.g., friends versus strangers).
Therefore, laughter is regulated in some situations depending on the goal—as in faking laughter at a bad joke by a classmate (in order to fit in) or the boss (to endear oneself to him or her).
One important question is whether people can tell genuine and manipulated laughter apart; another is whether they can tell, from the sound of laughter only, if two individuals are friends or romantic partners.
A recent study by Farley et al., published in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, concluded that people are indeed able to identify, with accuracy above chance, whether a stranger’s laughter is directed at a friend or recent romantic partner.
Investigating Laughter and Relationship Status
Sample of raters: college students (N = 50; 15 male); average age of 25 years old (range of 18 to 53 years); 46 percent African-American and 42 percent European-American.
Methods: Raters came to the laboratory and listened to laughs from archived phone calls. These involved 27 callers (14 women) in the early stages of a romantic relationship, who had made calls either to their romantic partners or same-sex friends.
Raters were instructed to evaluate the laughs for pleasantness and to guess whether they were directed at a caller’s romantic partner or friend.
Sample: 58 students
Methods: Participants completed a scale developed by the authors, which aimed to capture perceptions of laughter that is spontaneous versus fake: breathy/not breathy, changing/monotone, loud/soft, natural/forced, and relaxed/tense. The scale development was informed by previous research showing that authentic laughter tends to be more variable, breathier, and louder, and to sound more natural and relaxed.
Also measured were perceptions of laughter vulnerability: feminine/masculine, baby-like/mature, scatterbrained/serious-minded, submissive/dominant, and warm/cold.
Overall, eight laughs were evaluated, meaning two prototypical laughs (from the previous investigation) for each of the four types of laughter: male-friend, male-romantic partner, female-friend, and female-romantic partner.
Sample: 252 Prolific workers (125 men); 48 from the United States, with the rest coming from Mexico, Poland, Portugal, India, and a few other countries.
Methods: Raters listened to 12 laughs, three from each of four conditions (female/male friends and female/male romantic partners). They were instructed to guess whether the laughter came from a call between friends or romantic partners.
Subsequently, they completed ratings on the following characteristics of the laugh: cold/warm, masculine/feminine, monotone/changing, natural/forced, not breathy/breathy, relaxed/tense, soft/loud, and submissive/dominant.
Identifying Friendship vs. Romantic Laughter
The results showed people can detect whether laughter is directed at a friend or a recent romantic partner. Specifically:
- Participants “exceeded chance in determining relationship status (friend versus romantic).”
- Compared to laughter between romantic partners, friendship laughter sounded more authentic, such as louder, more relaxed, natural, and variable.
- The findings were “consistent across five unique cultures.”
- There was “support for the vulnerable love hypothesis,” the idea that “laughter cues reveal the vulnerable relationship status of early-stage romantic love.” To illustrate, romantic laughter sounded warmer and more submissive and feminine, when compared to friendship laughter.
Overall, friendship laughter was identified more accurately, perhaps because it sounded more spontaneous and authentic. Men and women were similarly accurate in identifying friendship laughter, though women performed better in identifying romantic laughter.
Judgments of friend versus romantic relationship status, the authors note, “were reliably linked to subjective characteristics of laughter authenticity. Laughter between friends was perceived as louder, more natural-sounding, more changing/variable (in Studies 2 and 3), breathier (in Study 2), and more relaxed (in Study 3).”
The study offers us three key takeaways.
One, both men and women are able to identify relationship status based on laughter, but women are better than men at identifying laughter directed at a romantic partner. Why?
This may be because, from an evolutionary perspective, misreading a man’s commitment intent could have been very costly (e.g., uncommitted sex and unwanted pregnancy). Thus, women may have evolved the ability to be more in tune with signals of romantic intent, including laughter.
Two, romantic laughter is perceived as less pleasant, perhaps because it sounds less confident and self-assured—as would be expected, given the uncertainties of early-stage romantic love.
Three, compared to laughter directed at friends, laughter directed at a romantic partner (particularly in the earlier stages of the relationship) tends to sound more:
The next few times you speak with your romantic partner and with your best friend, be mindful of their laughter in order to compare the two. Do you notice any differences? Which one feels more spontaneous, natural, and relaxed? Which sounds more pleasant?