05 August 2007

What makes women laugh/Coffee and Donuts/June 06 (Excerpts from the India study FUNNY GIRL, INDIA and the global report FINDING THE H-SPOT)

What Makes Women Laugh?

Women’s humour in different cultures reflects the position of women in society, their relationship with men, the degree of equality or inequality, and what’s considered womanly and unwomanly.

Tinged with some seriousness and even occasional sadness, the Indian woman’s relationship with laughter too reflects her journey and status in her search for equality, respect and independence for her gender.

Drawing from consumer interviews, media women interviews, women’s writing, analysis of movies, magazine content and even folk music, the Indian analysis reveals themes of revenge, a driving desire to use humour for social comment – “message humour”, a clear demand for “logical humour” and even a yearning for intimacy through humour.

The internet, SMS, and increasing mixed group friendships in colleges is changing the language and quality of laughter – and young, urban, educated English-speaking working women are indeed moving towards humour that’s neutral, doesn’t give away that it is a woman enjoying/cracking the joke, and tries to “laugh like a man”.

But the bulk of women’s writing – fiction or magazines, women’s programming, even women’s cinema is serious, and quite devoid of laughter. Why?

The evolutionary view: Taunting vs. supporting

In the days when all humans were hunter-gatherers, humour was a way of bonding the hunting tribe. When they came across other tribes, humour was a way of competing with them, calling them names, taunting them, ridiculing them. The women of the tribe in contrast, were much more likely to spend their time within the community rather than running into outsiders. For females, the basic function of humour was to strengthen their mutual bonds. Humour served to establish relationships, build friendships, provide support, and express love for other people.

The big vs. the small

As one apocryphal wife put it: "He makes the big decisions: whether to lower the interest rates, how to protect the rain forests, Europe, Russia, things like that. And I make all the little ones: where we live, where the children go to school, what we eat." Sarah Fieldman in Woman's Hour: Book of Humour

Humour in Mars and Venus

Laughing at someone vs. laughing with someone!

The male joker comedian typically focuses on a butt or victim – it’s about laughing at.
Female humour doesn’t need to diminish others – rather it creates a lighthearted context within which to build relationships and manage tensions. It’s about laughing with.
And even when women do laugh at someone… the victim will not be a victim for who he or she is but what he or she has done.Even when belittling men, women deliver it with a dose of generosity.

Jokes vs. stories. Competition vs. participation.

Male humour is based on competition and impressing those around them.

Women don’t tell jokes and as a rule women don’t regard humour as a competitive activity. Most women say they are neither good at remembering jokes nor good at telling them.

Women’s humour is conversational, spontaneous and they tend to tell stories. Participants in the conversation chip in with their own observations and embellishments turning the funny storytelling into a group activity.

“Thank God it’s not happening to me” vs. “That could happen to me”

Men generally laugh at other men. They big kicks from watching a fellow man make an utter ass of himself, preferably in public
Women find it hard to get a giggle out of another woman in trouble.

Themes that emerge in India

The gumption to give it back: Cheeky charming revenge
Candid confrontations: Challenging norms and renegotiating relationships
Elevate the ordinary: Smart clever observations on life
Coping and lightening up: Turning problems into ironies and absurdities; putting into perspective the emotional consequence of problems .Us women together Laughingly forgiving a man’s inefficiencies and reveling in her own superiority.Celebrating the differences between men and women.Intimacy with a man through shared laughter

How different are women from women?

British women – who are much more on an equal footing, emerged as the most 'laddish' in their sense of humour. Girls don't have any issue talking about sex and being quite vulgar if they think it's going to get a good laugh, and they don't expect to be judged harshly.

But in France women wouldn’t think of behaving like men.

In societies that expect people to contain their emotions, the response to humour tends to be muted. Asian women tend to cover their mouth when they laugh and tend not to laugh too loudly. In India and Thailand where there's still a very strong notion of femininity, laughing out loud in mixed company is not considered feminine.

Self-deprecation is a typical female approach to humour, but in China it runs counter to the Confucian imperative of saving face. Suggestion of conflict or disrespect between men and women is also not part of the culture.

The changing and the unchanging

In many societies women making their way up in education, the workplace, politics and entertainment, are absorbing some of the male ethos and using stories the way men use jokes – to command an audience and get a reaction.But despite increasing equality and convergence, women still prefer humour that facilitates bonding, friendship and connection.

There are many kinds of laughter but the kind that women specially cherish comes from shared experience and shared vulnerability.

As one respondent said "I laugh the most with my friend, as we could laugh for no reason and also we would laugh at ourselves which is the most beautiful thing. Together me and Hema are 1+1=11, that's our laughter strength".

The opportunity for brands

To create not a “funny brand”,
but “a brand with a sense of humour”.

There’s no need to try and get a big laugh, women don’t laugh with their bellies. They laugh with their heart. A wry smile, a mental chuckle could be more potent.

Brand Communication needs to make a sharp point that demonstrates product superiority.

Layer it with a larger life comment that her generation wants to make so that the brand is elevated and speaks on her behalf. Do it in a tone of Complicity and Community – shared naughtiness and shared experiences. The lighthearted manner lets her “get away with” what she really wants to say.

Do it with cheek and charm.The humour must enhance her femininity, not compromise it.

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