JoLIE 2:2/2009


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Neal R. Norrick and Delia Chiaro, Eds., Humor in Interaction, Amsterdam / Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company. 2009. Pp. xvii + 238. ISBN 978 90 272 8933 9.


Reviewed by Teodora Popescu, 1 Decembrie 1918 University of Alba Iulia



Humor in Interaction is a collection of research papers that bring a valuable contribution to the field of humour studies and other related areas, such as linguistic pragmatics, sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, psycholinguistics, gender studies and translation studies. Its central focus is on interactional aspects of humour, and the results are based on a complex set of data, extracted either from everyday conversations, talks at work or controlled experiments and questionnaires, using a wide array of approaches, from Conversation Analysis and Politeness Theory to Community of Practice and Bakhtin’s theory.

The book is divided into four parts, the first being an Introduction by the editors, Neal R. Norrick and Delia Chiaro, who present the aims and structure of the volume.

Part I, Conversation among friends and family, brings together studies based on recorded conversation in informal settings, and analyses verbal humour from the perspective of such interactions. The first paper in the series, Susan M. Ervin-Tripp and Martin Lampert’s Direct address as a resource for humor, tackles the circumstances under which humour appears in conversational self-disclosures with friends. This exploratory investigation revealed that humorous self-disclosures and self-disclosures accompanied by laughter tend to take place in the continuation of an ongoing topic within the contexts of humorous rounds, troubles talk, complex narration, and entertainments. It was found that the most frequent source of self-disclosing humour was Topical Continuity, in both children and adult talk. Another source of disclosure was topic change by a participant, needed to address a problem such as mitigation of a request by accounting for the need or making an apology. Results also revealed that disclosures sometimes are suggested by incidental stimuli, like something in the context, or by mistakes that lead to teasing by friends. The authors, however, consider that the group plays an important role as well; and “selfdisclosure depends so strongly on friendship that artificially composing groups would change the results” (p.26). The second contribution, Neal R. Norrick and Claudia Bubel’s An interactional approach to irony development investigates the use of direct address to create humour in scripted, recycled jokes and in everyday talk based on examples from corpora of transcribed conversational English. The authors give insights into previous research to date on vocatives and direct address, and indicate how humorous forms build on, extend and subvert the standard system. The two main functions of direct address are the ‘attention, identification’ function and a ‘contact, expressive’ function, which both play different roles in the creation of humorous discourse, for example when reciprocal direct address between friends, partners and family members leads to humorous banter in conversation. The authors also analyse how stock jocular phrases and spontaneous conversational joking may include an inappropriate form of address to create the incongruity characteristic of verbal humour, while appropriate forms of address within passages of direct address in dialogue help identify the characters and their relationships in jokes and anecdotes (p.44). The third paper, Helga Kotthoff’s An interactional approach to irony development studies conversational data from a project on how pupils use irony and related forms of communication. The analysis is based on a Bakhtinian and frame analytic approach in conjunction with a pragmatics of presumptive meaning to understand the irony used by nine-year-olds. According to the author, irony is understood as a complex mode of discourse as it necessarily involves performance. Children’s use of irony reveals that animation of different voices (in particular voices of authority) is necessary for the understanding of irony and negotiation of behavioural standards. Irony helps both children and students to create an in-group that plays with its knowledge of official and unofficial stances and sticks together in sharing unofficial perspectives and attitudes. The last contribution in the chapter, Multimodal and intertextual humor in the media reception situation: The case of watching football on TV, by Cornelia Gerhardt, investigates the use of humour in the media reception situation, which is found at the intersection of mass media and everyday face-to-face interaction. The corpus consists of naturally occurring interaction in conversations between television viewers in their homes. The humorous practices (jokes, humour and clever ironic commentary) occasioned by the reception situation “often result in common laughter signalling and fuelling the shared mirth” (p.96). They also contribute to in-group cohesion, negotiation of mutual stance on world-views and contextualization cue in the interpretation of the media text.

Part II, Doing gender with humor in talk at work deals with the issue of doing gender, based on talk recorded in workplace situations. The first paper in the chapter, Using humor to do masculinity at work by Stephanie Schnurr & Janet Holmes, analyses some of the ways in which hegemonic masculinity is manifested in workplace discourse, and exploited in workplace interactions. The authors use recordings made in several New Zealand professional organizations to demonstrate that humour in the workplace is a versatile discursive strategy. Results revealed that humour is a means by which professionals show their awareness of the omni-relevance of gender and gender stereotypes at work. The second contribution, Bernadette Vine, Susan Kell, Meredith Marra and Janet Holmes’s Boundary-marking humor: Institutional, gender and ethnic demarcation in the workplace investigates the complexities of boundary-marking humour, based on recorded workplace meetings of Māori and Pākehā women in a New Zealand government department. The difference in social position between the two groups (with Māori traditionally viewed as a minority, while the Pākehā people represent the dominant group) allows the authors to analyse how humour creates and maintains in-group boundaries and norms, and on the other hand, how it is used by minorities to construct positive identity and subvert the influence of dominant groups, at the same time reinforcing particular cultural values.

The aim of Part III, Failed humor and its interactional effects, is to analyse a field which has been given less attention by specialists, and looks at the context and negotiation between participants in interaction when unsuccessful humour occurs. The first contribution, Impolite responses to failed humor by Nancy D. Bell examines a corpus of rude rejoinders in reaction to a failed attempt at humour, by applying the theory of politeness and rapport management. The findings revealed that interlocutor characteristics, behavioural expectations, identity concerns/face claims, and the disruptive nature of humour all contributed to the hearers’ decisions to respond with aggression. The results also indicate that in certain circumstances, humour “is not at all frivolous – if this were the case, its failure would be of little consequence and certainly not worthy of some of the more vehement responses that were collected” (p.161). The next paper, Béatrice Priego-Valverde’s Failed humor in conversation: A double voicing analysis explores unperceived humour and rejected humour, based on a set of data from everyday conversations recorded during evenings passed among friends, using the double voicing approach from a Bakhtinian perspective. The author identifies two kinds of humour failure: the first being the case of humour that is purely and simply not perceived, while in the second instance, humour is perceived, but rejected by the listener. In the latter case, the listener becomes a victim and not a participant of the humorous sequence, which may become aggressive in the end. It is concluded that when humour is not perceived, this is because sometimes “it is impossible for the hearer to know which enunciator, which voice is speaking” and consequently, the addressee id completely entitled “to question who is really speaking and above all, whether the utterance is serious or humorous” (p.182).

Part IV, Humor in bilingual interactions reports research involving bilinguals and regard humour as a coping strategy in different communication situations. The first chapter in this last section, Kristin Kersten’s Humor and interlanguage in a bilingual elementary school setting investigates how humour is used in the process of language acquisition in a bilingual immersion setting. The data were collected from picture story narrations by 18 informants taking part in an English immersion program in Germany. The research focuses on instances of laughter and smiling as they appear spontaneously during the child narrations. The author identified ten different categories of laughter and smiling, five of them relating to humour according to the criteria of incongruity, an awareness thereof, and the experience of funniness on the part of the child (Clowning, Narrative/Behavioral Incongruity, Meta-linguistic Incongruity, Self-disparagement and Pictorial Incongruity), while the other five were Joy, Embarrassment (as expression of non-humour-related laughter, Involuntary Incongruity and Encouragement (identified in the interacting adult’s response to the child’s performance) Deprecation (when child laughs or jokes at the expense of someone else). The results revealed that young language learners use of humour (among other functions) as a mechanism to deal with the linguistic inadequacies of their interlanguage, and from a pragmatic point of view, as “a strategy in second language contexts to cope with violations of the Cooperative Principle” (p.207). The last contribution in the volume, Cultural divide or unifying factor? Humorous talk in the interaction of bilingual, cross-cultural couples, by Delia Chiaro, delves into a positive aspect of bilingual cross-cultural couples in long term relationships, i.e. the occurrence of what is considered a harmonious factor: humour. The data consisted of a quantitative analysis of 59 valid results to a purpose-built questionnaire administered among bilingual, cross-cultural couples, as well as qualitative analysis of six traditional, face-to-face, semi-structured interviews were carried out with cross-cultural bilingual couples identified via social networking in the city of Karlsruhe, Germany. The findings revealed that humorous talk acts as a bonding agent in cross-cultural, bilingual couples, with partners often making a special effort to teach their own brand of humour to their mate and vice versa, and to learn to appreciate and to use the humour of their partner’s culture.

The interdisciplinary approach adopted by the papers collected in this volume makes it a useful tool for linguists, in particular researchers in Conversation Analysis, Discourse Analysis, Pragmatics and Sociolinguistics. A better understanding of the function and mechanisms of humour used in conversational and interactional settings will contribute to better communication, in-group cohesion and social identity.





Bakhtin, M.M. (1981). The dialogic imagination. In C. Emerson, & M. Holquist (Eds), The dialogic imagination: Four essays by M.M. Bakhtin. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.


Goffman, E. (1981). Forms of talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


Gumperz, J.J. (1982). Discourse strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Norrick, N.R. (1993). Conversational joking. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


Scollon, R. (1998). Mediated discourse as social interaction: A study of news discourse. London: Longman.



How to cite this review: Popescu, T. (2009). Neal R. Norrick and Delia Chiaro, Eds., Humor in Interaction, Amsterdam / Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company. 2009. Pp. xvii + 238. ISBN 978 90 272 8933 9. Journal of Linguistic and Intercultural Education – Jolie, 2(2), 293-296. DOI:



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