Humor Motives, Qualities, and Reactions in Recalled Conflict Episodes

Article excerpt

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THE PURPOSE OF THIS investigation was to determine the effects of humorous comments made by people in the context of conflicts-inprogress. Previous researchers have noted the (albeit perhaps infrequent) presence of humor usage in arguments (Alberts, 1990; Krokoff, 1991). Its usage is undoubtedly due to the ambiguity of humor that enables it to be used to communicate and enforce social norms and relational expectations (Kane, Suls, & Tedeschi, 1977; Seckman & Couch, 1989; Slugoski & Turnbull, 1988) with the possibility of saying "Only kidding!" if comments are not well received (Johnson, 1990). While it is commonly recognized that using humor can serve both positive and negative functions in any situation (see Meyers, 2000), using humor effectively in a verbal argument may be even more challenging. Humor may not be well received by its target, particularly in conflicts, because recipients may see it as a personal attack (Zajdman, 1995) or an implication that the topic of the conversation does not warrant serious attention (Norrick, 1994). However, humor's ability to relieve stress has been well documented (e.g., Lefcourt, Davidson, Shepherd, & Phillips, 1995; Newman & Stone, 1996) and it is generally recognized that humor can decrease aggression (Baron, 1993) and provide "comic relief' in tense situations (Odell, 1996). The goal of this study was to identify those factors that are associated with positive outcomes of arguments in which humor is used. The term "outcome" is used here to describe the respondents' perceptions of the aftermath of the conflict episode, including their own emotional state, the relationship between the disputants, and the status of the conflict issue between them. Based on Attribution Theory, it is proposed that receivers' attributions about the speaker's reasons for using humor will influence their perceptions of the outcomes of the conflict.

Though humor may not be a routine occurrence during conflicts, examining instances in which it is used, and particularly when it is used successfully, can provide valuable information to conflict researchers. At the most basic level, it demonstrates the wide range of communicative strategies that are used to navigate the complex dynamics of conflict interactions. To that end, several areas of research provide some explanation as to why humor may be used as a strategy in conflict situations. First, the stressfulness of conflict creates an atmosphere in which people are likely to use humor simply to relieve their own anxiety or ease the tension. Conflict is physiologically and psychologically arousing for participants (e.g., Miller, Dopp, Myers, Stevens, & Fahey, 1999; O'Brien, Margolin, John, & Krueger, 1991), and a wealth of research has documented the use of humor in situations likely to produce anxiety in those involved (e.g., Brown & Keegan, 1999; Parrish & Quinn, 1999). Second, beyond simply being a stressful experience, conflict entails some particular tasks for which humor is a likely communication strategy. Humor has been found to be used by individuals to convey or enforce social norms (Meyers, 2000; Slugoski & Turnball, 1988; Stephenson, 1951) or deliver criticism (Jorgensen, 1996; Zajdman, 1995) in an indirect manner. Finally, previous studies have documented the use of humor as a communicative strategy during marital (Alberts, 1990; Katz & Gottman, 1996), family (Odell, 1996), and group conflicts (Olson, 1997). However, there is by no means a consensus as to humor's effect when it is used.

There is a dearth of research aimed specifically at determining what differentiates effective humor usage from ineffective humor usage during a conflict. For example, Katz and Gottmann (1996) noted that derisive humor usage by wives during conflict is associated with greater marital hostility. Norrick (1994) argued that humor can be offensive to conflict partners because it may be seen as implying that one is not taking the conversation seriously. …