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When Social Missteps Become a Source of Amusement

Interpersonal relationships are essential and fragile. Laughter helps us manage.

Key points

  • A person's success depends largely on the social connections developed and maintained throughout life.
  • Compared to physical, emotional, and cognitive variants, social vulnerabilities are the most diverse and most culturally influenced.
  • An occasional reminder of shared vulnerabilities often comes in handy, and laughter allows people to do that.

In past posts, I have suggested that laughter expresses a sense of shared frailty or limitation. It can be a fitting reminder whenever our status is noticeably raised or lowered relative to that of others. For convenience, I categorized various types of vulnerabilities into four general themes: physical, emotional, cognitive, and the topic of this post, social. The social vulnerabilities are great in number and kind, making this the most complex topic yet in our attempt to fully understand laughter and humor.

What follows is a section from my book, Why We Laugh: A New Understanding, which introduces the reader to this important domain.

What Is Social Vulnerability?

Every successfully reproducing organism will have at least one known entity in its environment–at some point in its life–another member of its own species. To this extent, all creatures are social, although the degree of interaction can fall anywhere along a broad continuum. Asexually reproducing life forms may come into contact only with parent or “daughter” cells. Even some sexual reproducers join with others of their species only to mate. At the other extreme are individuals that spend their entire lives within a colony of millions.

Whatever the arrangement, members of every species must possess a set of rules governing their interactions, some behavioral guidelines they use when dealing with others of their kind. At their most fundamental level, these instructions are genetically determined. However, more complex organisms, those containing nervous systems, are also genetically endowed with the capacity to supplement or modify a predetermined set of instructions with others that are learned—those formulated either from personal experience or from culturally acquired knowledge. Nature ensures these rules of engagement are a high priority because the most dangerous individuals are those who relate to others in unpredictable ways.

 Yan Krukov/Pexels
Source: Source: Yan Krukov/Pexels

Members of the same species are potentially both competitors and cooperators. The most universal forms of cooperation are those most genetically advantageous—between parents and offspring, among the offspring themselves, and within the extended family. But what of those who aren’t closely related?

At its core, the relationship between unrelated individuals of the same species is one of competition—for food, shelter, mates, and so on. But by virtue of evolution through natural selection, those individuals with a tendency for cooperation outside their immediate family group sometimes find themselves better equipped to compete against non-cooperators. Such an arrangement would, for instance, be especially selected for where members of groups are less likely to be attacked by predators than lone individuals (Alexander 1989).

An animal’s social life, beyond that which joins closely related individuals, is defined by the type and degree of cooperation—the objectives, the number and identity of the participants, their respective responsibilities, the frequency of interaction, the duration of the relationships, and so on. Most of us have numerous social affiliations. We have them with with coworkers, clients, political parties, sports teams, volunteer groups, religious groups, states, nations, etc. We form such associations because, generally speaking, we can attain more of our goals as members of a group than we can alone.

But as beneficial as social interaction might be, it is by no means without drawbacks and pitfalls. Social behavior is truly a high-stakes game for modern humans, vulnerable creatures that we are—high payoff and high risk. With whom should we cooperate and for how long? Who might we want to simply avoid? How much and in what ways should we help, or in some cases hinder, the actions of our associates…and those with whom they associate? All these variables must be worked out, in hundreds or thousands of permutations, throughout our lives. Relationships take considerable effort and brainpower to maintain. There are few hard-and-fast rules to guide our decisions. Small failures may result in embarrassing situations. Large failures may result in death.

There are many examples of social vulnerability. Acting inconsistently or hypocritically, uncertainty in one’s place in a social hierarchy, poorly differentiating friends and foes, ignorance of cultural codes or poor “manners” (especially in unfamiliar cultural surroundings)—these represent just part of the social minefield we navigate on a daily basis. To what extent do we seek individuality over compliance? How easily do friends and competitors manipulate us? How well do we judge the strengths and weakness of our associates? How effectively do we balance our needs and desires with those of family, friends, and acquaintances? Do we ever inadvertently hinder the progress of friends or advance that of an enemy? All our social decisions relate, however indirectly, to survival and reproduction.

Objectively defining what might and might not be considered a social vulnerability is often difficult. There are a few universal taboos, but almost all social shortcomings are evaluated against culturally established norms. Deception, for example, is generally considered a recourse for those in positions of disadvantage, but the type and degree of deception necessary to constitute vulnerability is something usually determined by the society in which one operates.

Every person is susceptible to err a little bit here and there. An occasional reminder of our shared vulnerabilities often comes in handy, and laughter allows us to do just that.

Examples of laughter inspired by social vulnerabilities are found throughout a YouTube video in which movie actor Jennifer Lawrence and late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon recall several embarrassing social encounters.

© John Charles Simon


Alexander, R. D. (1989). Evolution of the Human Psyche. In. P. Mellars and C. Stringer (Eds.), The Human Revolution: Behavioral and Biological Perspectives on the Origins of Modern Humans. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP.