You’re lying to Jesus!


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You’re lying to Jesus!”

Humor and play in a discussion about homelessness.
L. David Ritchie
Department of Communication

Portland State University

Portland, OR 97207

(503) 725-3550


Ritchie, L. D. (2011). “You’re lying to Jesus!” Humor and play in a discussion about homelessness. Humor 24, 481–511.

Dr. Ritchie is Professor of Communication at Portland State University in Portland Oregon. In addition to articles in recent issues of Metaphor and Symbol, recent publications on cognitive theories of metaphor include Context and Connection in Metaphor Theory, Palgrave-MacMillan, 2006.
Author’s Note: The conversation reported herein was moderated, transcribed, and coded by two students, Berlin Boyer and Brandon Ellison, as part of a class project. Their assistance is deeply appreciated. The final version of the manuscript benefitted from the helpful comments and suggestions of Brandon Ellison and three anonymous reviewers.
You’re lying to Jesus!”

Humor and play in a discussion about homelessness.


This study applies recent theories about humor to a sample of talk among a group of young adults about the issues and problems associated with homelessness. In this conversation, participants demonstrate a pattern of joking and language play that expresses a complex and ambivalent set of attitudes and feelings toward homelessness and toward the homeless as both outcasts and refugees from conventional society. Humor is used both to express complex responses to homelessness and as a tool for managing the tone and direction of the conversation. The results demonstrate how the identification of patterns of joking and wordplay can provide insights into how people accomplish task-oriented objectives as well as relational and interactive objectives in everyday talk.

Key Words: Humor, everyday talk, discourse, homelessness.

You’re lying to Jesus!”

Humor and play in a discussion about homelessness.

How does humor help us handle the problems posed by emotionally taxing issues such as those raised by our frequent encounters with homelessness? How does humor contribute to the process of attitude and belief formation in the crucible of everyday talk? How do people use humor to help negotiate conflicting social identities associated with significant life transitions?

This essay addresses these questions within a broader inquiry into the role of everyday conversation in the formulation, transmission, and expression of social reality, and a parallel inquiry into the role of figurative language, including humor, in the accomplishment of relational and task objectives in everyday talk. Informal talk about homelessness is a particularly useful focus for this inquiry, because, like many of the underlying issues in contemporary U.S. public life, the issues surrounding homelessness are complex and morally ambiguous. Homelessness touches most of us in one way or another on a daily basis, arouses an ambivalent mixture of emotions, and admits no ready or easy solution. Moreover, unlike other enduring issues such as abortion rights or gun control, views about issues associated with homelessness do not yet seem to have hardened or polarized: Civil conversation on the topic is still easily accomplished in ordinary social settings. Finally, homelessness is associated both with social problems of unemployment, substance abuse, and mental illness on the one hand and on the other hand, at least within contemporary U.S. youth subculture, with an idealistic and romantic pursuit of anti-materialism in the guise of boheme (“beat” or “hippie”) lifestyles.

1. Humor in groups.

Modern theories of humor have generally emphasized aggression and superiority (e.g., Gruner, 1997; Zillman & Cantor, 1976), contrast, incongruity, or incongruity resolution (e.g. Raskin, 1985; Raskin & Attardo, 1994; Suls, 1972), or tension-release (e.g. Lefcourt, 2001). Citing Apter’s (1982) characterization of humor as playful and paratelic (in contrast to goal-oriented or telic behavior), Martin (2007) insists that humor is “essentially a type of mental play involving a lighthearted, nonserious attitude toward ideas and events” (p. 1); Chiaro (1992) and Norrick (1993) make similar points. Martin concludes that aggression and superiority is often but not always involved in humor, and that some form of contrast or incongruity is always involved in the comprehension of humor, but he also distinguishes between the comprehension and the enjoyment of humor.

Theories of humor have often been based on and explained in terms of canned jokes, usually narratives building up to a punch line and often taken from “joke book” collections or joke pages of popular magazines (Attardo, 1994; Martin, 2007). At least in part, as Martin points out, this is an issue of methodology, since naturally-occurring humor does not readily lend itself to rigorous experimental methods. However, the theoretical understanding of humor as a communicative resource has been considerably enriched by discourse-analytic research on humor in conversations (e.g., Norrick, 1993; Tannen, 1984; recent examples include Everts, 2003; Terrion & Ashforth, 2002). Humor has been analyzed both in workplace groups (Holmes & Marra, 2002; Plester & Sayers, 2007; Terrion & Ashford, 2002), and in informal conversations among friends (Tannen, 1984) and within family groups (Everts, 2003; Norrick, 1993).

It is evident that humor often plays a complex role in group interactions (Attardo, 1994; Martin, 2007; Tannen, 1984). Recent research (e.g., Everts, 2003; Fine & De Soucey, 2005; Holmes & Marra, 2002; Plester & Sayers, 2007) has shown that groups often develop unique styles and traditions of joking and teasing as part of group culture. Humor helps to define the group, delineating members from outsiders, establishing and maintaining commitment to the group, and expressing and reinforcing the boundaries of acceptable behavior within the group. Humor is used to soften implied criticisms and directives and to negotiate differences of power and authority; it can also be used by inferiors to challenge or subvert power and status hierarchies and to assert solidarity among members of subgroups. Other research (e.g. Terrion & Ashford, 2002) highlights the social-facilitative and interpersonal bonding role of humor. When a complex or morally ambiguous topic is under discussion, humor may provide a means for introducing information and expressing responses that might otherwise seem mutually contradictory or otherwise reprehensible, and for introducing potentially offensive or controversial information and ideas while avoiding taking direct responsibility for them.

The work and family groups observed in recent research on humor often have clearly defined boundaries. Consistent with Social Identity Theory (Capozza & Brown, 2000; Tajfel & Turner, 1986) and the superiority / aggression theories of humor (e.g., Gruner, 1997; Zillman & Cantor, 1976) we would expect the humor in a clearly-defined group to be directed at out-groups or, when it is used within the group, to be used in a way that either reinforces the status hierarchy (when directed at less powerful members of the group) or subverts the status hierarchy (when directed at more powerful members of the group). However, within the family and friendship groups studied by Norrick (1993), much of the apparently aggressive humor was both welcomed and enjoyed by the apparent target of the “aggression,” and seemed to build rather than undermine a spirit of conviviality; similar patterns are observed by Terrion and Ashford (2002) among the group of police executives they observed. On the other hand, in the groups studied by Drew (1987), much of the teasing had a barbed edge and was either rejected or repaired by the target, for example by correcting the teaser or reaffirming the serious state of affairs (Attardo, 1994). .

Gruner (1997) claims that all humor is aggressive, although he recognizes some aggressive humor as playful, similar to the mock aggression of “rough-and-tumble” play. However, as Martin (2007) points out, Gruner’s claim is based on an obsolete theory of evolution and a definition of aggression that is so broad as to be unrefutable. Gruner also asserts that play always involves competition, and cannot be “fun” unless it involves the possibility of winning or losing, but Kohn (1986) provides extensive evidence that people often actively dislike competition and prefer non-competitive play. Even in rough-and-tumble physical play, among both animals and humans the dominant animal usually “holds back” enough to permit the play-mate to “win” frequently (Martin, 2007), thus mitigating the competition as well as the aggression. A rather different view of evolution is suggested by Dunbar (1996; 2003), and a contrasting view of language play is suggested by Carter (2004) and Cook (2000).

Drawing on growing evidence of a correlation between the size of the cerebral cortex and the complexity of social organization in several species of primates (as well as other mammals and birds), Dunbar proposes that the evolution of advanced cognitive abilities in general and language in particular has been in part driven by the pressures of living in large and complex social structures. Dunbar argues that language serves both as an extension of grooming behaviors observed among other primate species and as a means of exchanging information about the social structure of an extended group (“gossip”). Among other species of primates, grooming is used to build and maintain coalitions, and appears to function at least in part by means of the pleasure of being groomed. It is apparent from research on other species that play is also a source of pleasure; for example the opportunity to play has been found to serve as well as food as a reward in conditioning experiments (Fagan, 1995). Among humans, language play in particular, including nonsense as well as humor, is a source of pleasure among both adults and children (Cook, 2000; Martin, 2007).

Carter (2004) and Cook (2000) provide extensive examples demonstrating the extent to which humans, adults as well as children, derive enjoyment from playing with every aspect of language, from its sounds and rhythms through word meanings and narrative structures (for a discussion of playful and humorous use of metaphorical language see Glucksberg, 2001 and Ritchie & Dyhouse, 2008). Although Dunbar does not go into detail about the forms of language used as a substitute for and extension of physical grooming, it is well established that humor can relieve emotional stress and contribute to healing (Lefcourt, 2001; Martin, 2007), and a “grooming” function based on the mutual enjoyment of humor is certainly consistent with evidence that humor can contribute to group solidarity and bonding (Attardo, 1994; Martin, 2007).

1.1. Humor and the constitution of social reality amid conflicting social identities

The research reported in the following was undertaken as part of a larger project designed to understand how socially intimate groups talk about politically, morally, and emotionally sensitive topics. An overarching objective of this project is to understand how groups constitute their understanding of external situations that affect them (their social reality) through their casual “everyday” conversations and simultaneously maintain themselves as coherent social units. A more immediate objective is to understand how figurative language contributes to a group’s ability to negotiate a diversity of viewpoints within an overall commitment to group cohesion and solidarity. Thus, the objectives of the project combine research on the social processes of group cohesion with research on the distributed cognitive processes involved in establishing and formulating “positions” with respect to issues of mutual interest to group members.

Research on social identity has been criticized both for focusing on inter-group communication to the exclusion of communication within the group, and for emphasizing a single identity and ignoring the fact that multiple identities may operate simultaneously and sometimes in conflict with one another (Crisp & Hewstone, 2000; Worchel et al., 2000). The group within which the conversation reported herein took place exemplifies yet another level of complexity. Consistent with Crisp and Hewstone, each member of this group has multiple social identities, and various of these come into play during the conversation. But most of the participants, half of whom are students, are also at a life stage at which social identities often undergo radical changes. Several of the participants in this conversation had, in the recent past, identified with a boheme, “hippie” life-style. To various degrees most of the participants were at the time of the conversation engaged in processes (pursuing college degrees, starting careers) that are at least to some extent contradictory with the anti-materialist, boheme values that had previously been professed by several of them. Because these values appear to be associated to some extent with the state of homelessness, the content of their discussion of homelessness was inevitably influenced by the apparent contradictions between their lingering boheme social identities and their emergent middle-class social identities. These within-person contradictions were emphasized by differences among the group members, which resulted in frequent bouts of joking and teasing. .

During the initial analysis of the conversation reported herein, it became apparent that, in addition to the functions related to group identity, cohesion, and boundary-maintenance identified in previous research (Attardo, 1994; Martin, 2007), humor served a distinctly cognitive function, providing a vehicle through which group members were able to express and work out their complex personal responses to the emotionally charged and multi-faceted issues related to homelessness and poverty in the midst of comfort and plenty. For many of them, humor also provided a means to express the contradictions not only between the value commitments of different group members but also between the boheme values some members were relinquishing and the middle-class value commitments they were beginning to adopt. Finally, consistent with Dunbar’s (1996) theory of the “grooming” function of language and Martin’s (2007) observations about the social-bonding effects of shared pleasure, the humor also helped facilitate the social interaction by provided a basis for mutual enjoyment.

2. The conversation.

The data analyzed herein were gathered by two students in an advanced seminar on figurative language and humor (Ellison & Boyer, 2008), using a format based on the “peer group discussions” initially developed by Gamson (1992) and Sasson (1995). In contrast to more traditional focus groups, in “peer group discussions” participants are acquainted with each other outside of the research setting, fewer participants are used in each group, and the discussions are held in an informal social setting. Sasson argues that this approach encourages participants to interact more intensely and with less reserve and is more likely to give an accurate reflection of the subculture from which subjects are drawn.

2.1 Participants.

For this study, six young adults, including two moderators, were invited to meet in the living room of one of the moderators and talk about issues related to homelessness. Three members of the group and one moderator are male, one participant and one moderator are female. The two moderators and one other participant are students at a large urban university in Portland, Oregon, a mid-sized western U.S. city. One of the males in the group, R, has himself been homeless on more than one occasion, for periods of time ranging from a few weeks to several months. R also appears to be the most politically sophisticated – and the most liberal – of the participants. The other participants represent political and social views that range from moderately conservative to very liberal.

2.2 Analysis.

To preserve anonymity, all participants are designated only by an initial. Details of transcription and coding are given in Appendix A. The transcribed data were first analyzed, using a combination of “bottom-up” and “top-down” analysis (Cameron, 2007), for the pattern of metaphors and narratives (the results of the metaphor analysis are reported elsewhere). During this analysis, numerous instances of playful and humorous communicative behavior were noted. These include stories told with humorous intent, teasing and humorous insults exchanged between participants, and humorous meta-comments about the research process itself. Subsequent to the completion of the metaphor analysis, the instances of humor and play were identified and subjected to further analysis.

3 Overview of the conversation.

A conversation held in the peer-group format can at best approximate a naturally-occurring conversation, and participants will inevitably be aware of the research setting. This awareness must be considered as part of the communicative context throughout the interpretation of the data (Gamson, 1992; Sasson, 1995). The participants in this conversation directly addressed the purposes of the research and joked about the research process itself several times during the conversation. Nonetheless, all participants seem to have been fully and sincerely engaged with the topic, and it is apparent from their joking and teasing that they participated in the conversation as an ordinary social interaction.

Several themes became apparent early in the analysis. Tensions between distance and empathy, boheme anti-materialistic and more conventional middle-class values, cynicism and pity, and person-blame vs. system-blame appeared early and re-appeared throughout. There were also frequent contrasts – between the city in which the conversation took place (Portland) and other cities in the U.S. and Europe (particularly New York and Amsterdam), between “real” homeless persons and “rich kids from the suburbs,” between “the system” and “the street.” Participants repeatedly mentioned that Portland attracts an unusual number of homeless people because the city is friendly to them – although on one of these occasions R, the one member of the group who had actually been homeless, ironically noted that the homeless are shunted away from the center of the city into a permanent encampment called “Dignity Village.”

Throughout the conversation one person would speak for several intonation units, usually a half minute but sometimes longer, often interrupted by brief back-channel comments. Then several participants would make brief comments in response to the preceding monologue, and the pattern would be repeated. In most cases, at least one story was related or referenced during this prolonged turn. In some cases, a story was interrupted by another person’s prolonged turn, then resumed and finished. Themes introduced in one story were frequently picked up, repeated, and sometimes transformed in later turns (see Cameron, 2007).

4 Humor

Several examples of humor occur in connection with stories that make fun of homeless people or “the system.” However, humorous stories also celebrate the humanity of homeless people, including stories in which homeless people get the better of “the system” in one way or another, and several instances of humor are at the expense of the person telling the story. Another large category of humor involves quips1 and jokes either about the research process or serving to deflate one or another of the participants, at least in part as a means of controlling the conversation.

4.1 Making fun of the homeless.

The conversation opened with a pair of narratives about encountering homeless people, in which stock images of homeless panhandlers are invoked:

0139 S: I.. uh.. I'm the same way. Really don't think about it.

0142 When I do think about it I say ^outlandish, ridiculous^ things [laughter]

0145 Because its fun to be.. you know.. offensive and upsetting to people,

0149 It-its a lot of.. cliché things that come to mind.

0155 Like somebody standing on the side of..

0157 the freeway, with a ^sign^ and a ^dog^...

This “sign and a dog” image recurred repeatedly, often paired with a humorous comment. It was followed almost immediately by another narrative, which emphasized yet another homelessness stereotype:

0222 P: Well did I tell you about.. the game that I made up

0225 When I moved downtown... Called ^scare a bum away^?

0227 S: [Laughs] No=o.. Oh yeah


0229 P: I, I'd gotten.. I'd gotten frustrated with ^walking downtown^.

0232 I couldn't leave a building... and walk around a corner

0235 without getting asked for a cigarette [yup] or change..

0238 And so.. I.. thought about it and I was like..

0240 What.. would be the one thing that would.. keep these people..

0243 away from me

0245 And... the concept is.. that.. no one wants to ask you for ^shit^...

0249 If you look more fucked up than they are

S: Hmmmph [laughter]

0251 P: So basically.. you can usually spot a homeless person

0254 from about half a block away.

0256 And when you do you just, kinda, go into.. kinda... of a retarded...

0259 kinda walk and just stumble down the street

0301 or just get some really grimace face... And just start talking to yourself..

0305 {And they don't ask you for shit.}... {slowed, with emphasis}

0308 S: No that's a fair thing. I might try that


This basic avoidance narrative, with its implicit aggression and assertion of superiority with respect to homeless people is echoed several times in different versions, sometimes in a light and humorous tone, sometimes in a more serious tone.

Beginning a story about a panhandler who was at the same intersection for several months, S repeats a common stereotype: “And there were always the same.. bums.. bums?.. I don't know.. like.. I don- always the same fuckers out there.. with their fucking signs” Laughter] (S, 0927-0935). Switching from humor at the expense of the homeless to joking about the research process, P remarks, “Much better topic” (P, 0938), S replies, “Tran- Transcribe it, um..” [Laughter] (S, 0939) and R exclaims “Ye=es.”

Late in the conversation in a discussion about why homeless people all have dogs, S (4821) says “I also think they are a good pity button!” and R (4825) responds, “That’s what babies are for..” (general laughter). Here the humor is more complex, combining an implied denigration of homeless people with a subversive cynicism.

Early in the conversation, participants draw a distinction between the genuinely down-and-out” homeless and “rich kids” who are merely “slumming.” In response to one of R’s stories about his own life “on the streets,” B starts a question about the homeless subculture, then protests,

0407 Hey, I'm not the one from {^suburb^}. No [laughter] uh

0410 It's a bunch of rich kids. Like, it's this whole [cough]

0412 It's a dichotomy. You have real homeless people

0414 And then you have street kids or whatever [yeah]

0417 And it' kids from {suburb}. And they're ^slumming^

0420 Because they're.. whatever, you know.. Like whatever cliché in their life..

0424 And they feel like.. oh you know..

0426 {My parents don't understand me

0427 Society doesn't understand me} {mocking, whiny sounding}

0428 But it's also.. uh... Man it's a subculture. It's great.. like..

0433 ^Drugs^ and ^Dogs^ and ^traveling^ and ^trains

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