Laughter is universal and exists in humans and primates. The primary function of laughter in apes in response to tickling was intended to continue the play in progress. The apes laughed when they wanted the tickling to continue, and I can admit this makes me want to find some apes and tickle them. They will laugh and I will laugh at them laughing!
Since language and gender and ethnicity and age, race, history, social class, et al have continued to divide the human race into smaller and smaller armed camps, both workplaces and humor have become something of minefields, with small humorous grenades lobbed across the break room. When a group of people in a workplace laugh at something funny, they are not all laughing at the same thing. Humor is about risk and privilege, says author Regina Barecca, and we don’t all wield our power the same way.
A study looked at functional MRI in women’s and men’s brains when exposed to humor, and found some differences. Women’s brains activated in areas of language processing and memory, both higher functioning areas, and then in the limbic system, the pleasure regions. The pleasure activation in women was stronger than researchers were expecting.
“When a woman’s brain encountered the punch line, her reward center lit up. According to study authors, the activation of this center not only signals the presence of something pleasant, but that the pleasure was unexpected. Women appeared to have less expectation of a reward, which in this case was the punch line of the cartoon. So when they got to the joke’s punch line, they were more pleased about it.”
I might suggest to the study authors that women in the study were not laughing because they got the punch line, they were laughing because they weren’t the punch line!
Professor Berreca, in her article Leading with the Funny Bone, suggests a basic difference in how humor is used in the workplace between men and women. For men, laughter and humor is used to establish dominance. (Really? What a shock!) Women’s humor targets those who have power over them, channeling outrage and anxiety into laughter. Women are less likely to risk offending those experiencing powerlessness. In fact, we are often taught to be VERY careful not to offend anyone. We want to frame our experiences in such a way they can be communicated without pain. We want to communicate without pain. And then, at least for some of us, we want to go laugh with some apes.