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American Annals of the Deaf

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Attitudes, Innuendo, and Regulators: Challenges of Interpretation
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TABLE 4. Possible Outcomes of Face-Threatening Acts

Speaker’s Intention

Hearer’s Interpretation Speaker’s Expectation Hearer’s Expectation
Meaning offense Taking offense Insult Insult
Meaning offense Not taking offense Insult Amusement
Not meaning offense Taking offense Amusement Insult
Not meaning offense Not taking offense Amusement Amusement

One way for the speaker to avoid these pitfalls is to mark the innuendo, but that has consequences of its own. Some studies have investigated how the speaker might set off the utterance. Boxer and Cortes-Conde (1997) refer to studies wherein the speakers use disclaimers or exaggerated intonation, laughs, or winks to mark the utterance. Barbe (1993) analyzed explicit irony in written English. She selected Letters to the Editor that contained phrases like “it is ironic that . . . ,” “ironically . . . ,” and “in a rather ironic twist of fate . . .” from two newspapers. What is striking is Barbe’s observation in the footnote about the selection of these sources: “It is interesting, and perhaps worth investigating, that professional writers of satires seem to avoid the explicit use of irony” (p. 582). Of course they do. Irony, innuendo, etc., are indirect by nature. Explicating irony by calling it such or following innuendo with the tag “if you know what I mean,” undermines the intent of the form. It is a linguistic rim shot. The speaker avoids being taken literally, but as a conversation style, the technique leaves him looking like the stereotype of a bad stand-up act, “Hey, these are the jokes, folks.” One need only look to the Monty Python sketch in which the character follows up each utterance with a vocalized stream of markers—“wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more, very good then”—to see the backlash of revealing the implication.

Issues with Research to Date

As mentioned earlier, linguistic research into humor has focused on appreciation rather than production. One of the great barriers, especially for the study of conversational joking, is naturalness. Experimenters in all fields try to strike the perfect balance between naturalness and control. Spontaneity is a key feature of conversational joking. The example above, “at band camp,” was hysterical in context and not the least bit amusing outside of it. One might appreciate the depth of wit required to create the humor, but it does not have the impact without the spontaneity. Some studies have focused on control by using written English (Barbe, 1993; Leggitt & Gibbs, 2000); others chose to record actual interactions to analyze (Boxer & Cortes-Conde, 1997; Hay, 2000). Logistics must be considered either way. For example, would the subjects in the Leggitt and Gibbs study react differently to the verbal irony if they saw it in context and heard the intonation rather than reading it from a page. Hay mentioned in her own background material that men and women use humor differently. Men tend to perform while women tend to use it cohesively. The subjects did not know Hay was analyzing humor, but they did know they were being recorded. Does that make the speech event a performance and potentially inhibit the speakers? Hay, like all researchers of natural human interaction, is constrained by Labov’s Observer’s Paradox (1972). By simply being involved, personally or via electronics, the researcher changes the dynamic.

Still, these studies are a great deal more sensitive to factors that contribute to humor than some prior research. For example, Hay points out that much of the research to date has been conducted by men, naturally from a male-centric perspective. That has led to misconceptions that women do not have a sense of humor or can’t tell jokes, and even speculation that women are not aggressive enough to tell jokes. In one example mentioned in Fine (1983), a study was conducted on men in bars to see how they use and respond to humor. It revealed that men tend to laugh more at risqué jokes when they are told by beautiful women than when they are told by unattractive women. The obvious problems with this study are: 1) Who decided the jokes were funny to begin with? and 2) Who decided how attractive the women were? Beyond the mental image of a formal Request for Participants advertising for ugly women to tell dirty jokes, readers of these investigations must be particularly attentive to the researchers’ methodologies.


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