“What’s so funny?”: Why do we smile at inappropriate moments?

“What’s so funny?”: Why do we smile at inappropriate moments?

Imagine that you are in a situation that is not funny or even sad, and your lips are stretched treacherously in a smile, or there is a completely inappropriate desire to laugh. You are shouted at, and you can hardly contain an involuntary laugh. Or they tell you the hard news, and you can barely contain yourself from bursting into laughter.

Of course, none of this is real laughter. A person in such circumstances is not happy at all, but the situation still turns out to be the most embarrassing and even offensive to the rest of the participants.

If this has happened in your life, then we hasten to share the good news: there is nothing wrong with you. This is a fairly common reaction, which is most often referred to as nervous laughter. Let’s find out why it occurs and how to deal with it.

Why are we drawn to laugh at inappropriate moments?

One of the first psychologist Stanley Milgram drew attention to nervous laughter. This was back in the 1960s.

At Yale University, Milgram investigated how far people could go if they blindly trusted authority figures. He suggested that some participants in the experiment should be given an electric shock to others (actually, to the scientist’s assistants). There was no actual electric shock, but the fake participants were careful to pretend to be uncomfortable. But the “tormentors” laughed.

The experiment itself and its results certainly sound ominous, but Milgram concluded that it was not evil, and people can laugh when they find themselves in highly uncomfortable situations.

Later the neurologist and psychologist Vileyanur Ramachandran put forward a hypothesis that laughter was originally a kind of indicator that showed a person that everything is fine, there is nothing to be afraid of, it is possible to relax. And, accordingly, nervous smiling and giggling in inappropriate conditions is a kind of psychological defense (“I’m laughing, therefore nothing bad is going on”). Also, according to Ramachandran, laughter helps switch and distract from strong negative experiences.

Roughly the same conclusions were reached by the authors of a small 2015 study conducted at the same Yale University. They studied illogical emotional reactions like the desire to pinch a baby with force or laugh in a stressful situation, and concluded that any strong emotion “overloads” us, and we want to restore balance and release tension.

How to prevent nervous laughter?

The reasons for untimely smiles are, of course, valid, and everyone has had such a reaction at least once. But someone who giggled, for example, at a funeral, or smiled during a serious conversation with the manager, from this does not feel better. Here is what psychologists recommend to do in such a situation.

Analyze when you laugh

Think about what triggers your reaction most often: sad events, conflicts, or maybe situations in which you feel guilty. If your “laughing for no reason” has certain triggers and you understand them, you can prepare in advance.

Get in the right frame of mind

If you are going to be in a “dangerous” situation for you and you know about it in advance, you can try to calm yourself down: walk to relieve the growing tension, do some breathing exercises, replay in your head a possible scenario of upcoming events, rehearse acceptable behavior.

Communicate more frequently

The ability to manage emotions when communicating with people and select appropriate reactions is a skill that most often lends itself to training. The more a person communicates, the more often he “works out” a variety of situations (both conflictual and sad), the less he is influenced by stress.

Consult a psychotherapist

If you can not get rid of nervous laughter and it becomes a problem for you, it is worth trying to see a specialist who can help you understand the causes of this reaction and influence it.

It’s also a good idea to see a doctor, because nervous laughter that looks like a tic can be a symptom of several diseases, including hyperthyroidism, Graves’ disease, and pseudobulbar syndrome.

What do you do if you’re already laughing and can’t stop?

Imagine something frightening

Imagine something very scary, preferably in color and in as much detail as possible. This will help you switch gears and stop laughing or smiling inappropriately.

Think of something very boring

Think about what you had for breakfast this morning. Mentally list what you are currently wearing or what items surround you. Think about what you planned to do this week. Start in your mind allocating expenses or counting expenses.

Concentrating on such “nerdy” little things will interrupt your nervousness and make it easier for you to control yourself.

Occupy your hands

You can start twisting the watch on your wrist, fiddling with your hair, fixing your clothes, rearranging items on your desk. Such actions also help distract you and put your feelings in order.

Find an excuse to go out

If possible, leave the room, find a secluded place and try to calm down, breathe or drink water.


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