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Heard one about joke collector who never cracked up?

Scholars come to Boston to share data, not laughs

By Neena Satija
Globe Correspondent / June 24, 2011

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Leave it to a bunch of academics to turn the study of laughter into serious business.

Such was the scene across the street from Boston Common at Emerson College yesterday, as researchers from 12 countries convened for a two-day International Conference of Laughter and Humor in Interaction to study the role of mirth in social situations.

The conference is not meant to be a barrel of laughs, said Phillip Glenn, a communication studies professor at Emerson, which sponsored the meeting. “It’s an academic study. Its goal is not to train people to be better laughers.’’ Rather, he said, it is meant to give scholars “a better understanding of the world.’’

In a morning session, Wayne Beach explored humor in the world of the cancer clinic, playing videos of patients’ visits. “Is that really a laughter particle or is it just an aspirated particle?’’ Beach, a communications professor at San Diego State University, asked at one point. In other words, he wanted to know whether one patient’s response to an oncologist, recorded in a transcript as “h h h,’’ was laughter or a nervous utterance.

As Beach and others presented videos and transcripts of humorous interactions through the morning, their colleagues remained stone-faced, scribbling in their notepads and adjusting their glasses. If a joke or funny story told in a video fell flat, the researcher would say, “The listener didn’t get the laughable element.’’ If the joke worked, the translation to academic-speak was “a humorous value is attributed to the telling.’’

That isn’t to say that the community of gelotologists, people who study the physiology and psychology of laughter, is not playful.

In a presentation today, an English professor and a psychology professor from Carthage College in Wisconsin will team up to give dramatic readings of humorous dialogues from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.’’

“We found an intersection between [how humor works] in real life, spontaneous conversations, and artistically crafted conversations,’’ said Maria Carrig, the English professor.

In another session, a researcher from Sweden will examine how humor can enter conversations on the Internet through punctuation such as emoticons and quotation marks.

Glenn’s talk yesterday focused on laughter in job interviews. He found that job candidates get away with humor if they are careful to make it ambiguous. For instance, one candidate boasted about his credentials and later blurted out that he may be “running the company one day’’ and followed the statement with a burst of “laughter particles.’’ The laughter let him create distance from what he had just said without dismissing it altogether. In this way, “you can kind of try to have your cake and eat it, too,’’ Glenn said.

Unlike many researchers at the conference, Glenn specializes in the study of laughter, and he found his passion early. A love of Shakespeare in college turned into an interest in humor in theater and then in everyday life. He started collecting examples of laughs, from the tiniest of chuckles (represented in transcripts as “h h h’’ or “heh heh’’) to full-throated guffaws (written as “HAH HAH HAH’’).

Beach’s interest in humor developed much later in his career, as he was studying how family members of cancer patients would discuss the disease.

He later collected hundreds of videos of oncologists interacting with patients and found that, contrary to popular belief, very few videos contained instances of crying. There were far more examples of laughter.

“You wonder what [cancer and humor] have to do with each other, and the answer is everything,’’ said Beach, whose work was funded by the National Cancer Institute.

He hopes to one day show such videos in an educational setting. “It could make a huge difference to personalize inhuman situations,’’ he said.

In one video, two doctors are checking in with a young mother of two who knows she only has months left to live.

Asked how she is doing, the patient responds brightly at first: “It’s been hard, but we’re getting along OK.’’

Suddenly, she begins to cry.

One doctor gives her a tissue and puts a hand on her knee. The doctor pauses, then leans in to tell the patient, “We have this effect on people.’’

After a few moments of shared laughter, the three settle down and continue to cope.

Neena Satija can be reached at nsatija@globe.com.