A funny thing happened on the way to romance: How humor influences romantic relationship initiation

How to Use Humor in Relationship Initiation

Given its potentially important role in relationship initiation, how do people communicate their humor to attractive others?  Martin and colleagues (2003) suggest that there are four styles of humor that people tend to adopt in everyday life.  The first two, affiliative and self-enhancing, are positive humor styles.  Affiliative humor is an amusing, friendly, inviting humor style, while self-enhancing humor reflects a tendency to take a humorous view of life, even in difficult times.  The other two styles, considered negative humor styles, are aggressive humor and self-defeating humor.  The former evokes laughter through sarcasm, ridicule, or hurtful teasing, while the latter produces laughter at the expense of the self.  Positive humor styles tend to be associated with psychological well-being, self-esteem, and social intimacy, while the negative humor styles are linked with more hostility and aggression (Martin et al., 2003).  How might these styles relate to relationship initiation success?

The Effectiveness of Different Humor Styles

In order to ask this question, DiDonato and colleagues (2013) generated a series of funny hypothetical first encounters with an attractive stranger.  Participants were asked to imagine that they were approached by a stranger while sitting at a bar.  They then read a conversation in which the stranger produced either affiliative humor (i.e., positive humor) or aggressive humor (i.e., negative humor).  How would you evaluate a stranger who sees you sit down and then says, “That seat is for good looking people only…do you think you’ll do?”  The stranger might be joking, but what impression did the joke give you?  Participants then rated this stranger on attractiveness for a short-term or a long-term romantic relationship, and judged the stranger’s competence and warmth, allowing the researchers to compare reactions to the different humor styles.

The findings showed that humor style influenced flirting success, even after accounting for funniness.  Both men and women preferred the stranger who used positive (vs. negative) humor (DiDonato et al., 2013).  Funny quips about a bartender’s peanut offerings apparently outperformed sarcastic, aggressive teasing; but, interestingly, this difference was only relevant when participants considered long-term relationships.  Humor style made no difference when participants evaluated prospects for short-term encounters, which is consistent with evidence that cheesy pick-up lines (e.g., “Do you have any raisins? No? Well then, how about a date?” p. 653) are just as effective as more sincere overtures when initiating short-term relationships (Senko & Fyffe, 2010).  Findings also showed that positive humor conveyed more competence (which encompasses intelligence) and warmth than negative humor, and these underlying inferences helped account for the connection between humor style and long-term relationship interest (DiDonato et al., 2013).  Taken together, these findings advance the idea that humor operates as a fitness indicator, suggesting that humor style, not just humor alone, signals specific underlying characteristics. 

Some Practical Considerations

Where does this leave us?  Well, it seems that initiating some amusing banter, especially for men, may be a great way to charm a potential romantic partner, either by signaling appealing partner qualities (Wilbur & Campbell, 2011), revealing interest (Li et al., 2009), or creating cohesion (Storey, 2003).  Before you try to dazzle people with your wit, however, a couple points of caution.  If you are looking for long-term love, take stock of your other attractive qualities first.  Some evidence suggests that humor will help your chances only when you are already physically attractive (Lundy, Tan, & Cunningham, 1998).  Initial status may also matter: high-status people can increase their attractiveness using self-deprecating humor, but this will not necessarily work for low-status people (Greengross & Miller, 2008).  Consider also your prospect’s energy level, as people who are ego-depleted tend to be less receptive to cute opening gambits (e.g., “Excuse me what time is it? I just wanted to be able to remember the exact moment that I met you’’ p. 1076) than people who have plenty of self-control (Lewandowski, Ciarocco, Pettenato, & Stephan, 2012).  Finally, people who stay together tend to share humor styles (Barelds & Barelds-Dijkstra, 2010), suggesting that if you use humor as a coping mechanism and your prospective partner does not, you may have trouble beyond a short-term relationship. 

From the editors

Why might humour play an important role in romantic attraction? DiDonato (2013) traces the reasons from two main perspectives: when humour acts a sexual selection cue, and when humour acts as an interest indicator. I particularly enjoyed the section on “How to use humour in relationship initiation”. Without sounding like a humour recipe book to create humour (which by the way, is extremely difficult to fake), DiDonato gives hints and tips on the type of humour to use and when (e.g., are you looking for a short or long term mate?) which are supported by empirical evidence.

As humour is theorized to evolve as a fitness indicator and due to the differential parental cost (therefore the requirement for females to be pickier), DiDonato identifies the gender difference when it comes to the importance of humour within a potential mate. Indeed, she cites research supporting this trend: men, in general, tend to seek women that appreciate their jokes whereas women, in general, tend to focus on whether the men can make them laugh. Although the trend and rationale makes sense, I can’t help but think about the reverse where women do the initiating instead of men. Are these women still humour absorbers or do they reciprocate in humour production?

Another interesting point regards the different types of humour that exists. Accordingly, there are two main groups of humour styles: positive and negative humour. Based on DiDonato and colleagues’ research (2013), humour styles influence the success of long-term relationship initiation. Positive humour was found to be more beneficial for those who were looking to start a long-term relationship; the style of humour did not really matter for those who were looking to start a short-term relationship. However, social interactions do not happen within a vacuum; I think situational factors may also determine whether positive or negative humour influence the success rate of the relationship initiation. For example, it may be possible for negative humour to work in the man’s favour, especially if the aggressive joke was about an aggressor that the man had just saved the woman from. If used correctly, might negative humour actually reflect the strength or capabilities of the humour initiator? Also, what might be the reaction of men when the woman is the negative humour initiator?

I think it is likely that many of us have come across humour during a relationship initiation in one way or another and this article is definitely relevant to those who are looking for a potential love interest. Does the article agree with what you are experiencing or have experienced previously? Share with us your thoughts and comments below!

Laysee Ong
Associate Editor

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