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

The success of humor, like many interpersonal behaviors, may depend in part on contextual factors and individuals’ goals, so the savvy comedian will need to read these carefully before offering a quick-witted comment.  In general, err on the side of positive humor (DiDonato et al., 2013), such as spontaneous, warm humor that builds off of shared experiences, the surroundings, or everyday news or events.  For example, if a cute passerby spills a drink, resist the urge to sarcastically poke fun (e.g., “Remind me never to wear nice clothes around you”) and instead, relax, smile, and create a connection (e.g., “I agree – this floor needs a good cleaning”).  The good news is that failed humor may still leave the door open for a short-term affair, but keep in mind that prospective long-term partners are discerning, using whatever clues they can to navigate the uncertain process of finding a good partner. 

As a final recommendation, if humorous remarks are not your forte, you might be wise to pursue an alternative flirting strategy, at least initially.  Better to think long-term and allow your other strengths to shine than to offer a line that is canned or, worse, not actually funny.  One explanation for why humor sometimes fails as a relationship starter is that sometimes an intended humorous comment leaves no one laughing (Bale et al., 2006; Weber et al., 2010).  Even if the right kind of humor can be a quick, effective, and pleasurable strategy for conveying a wealth of positive mate characteristics, direct approaches or compliments are preferable to weak humor (Senko & Fyffe, 2010). Remember too that people will find you funnier if they are already attracted to you (Li et al., 2009), an important detail to keep in mind as you think about how humor can best fit into your toolbox of flirting tactics.


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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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