Laughter Communicates Meaning Across Cultures

Two young girls laughing in ballet classThe way people laugh may reveal whether they are laughing in the presence of friends or acquaintances. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports people are able to identify the social meaning of laughter at a rate somewhat higher than chance would suggest—even when they listen to laughs from another culture.

Does Laughter Mean the Same Thing to Different Cultures?

Lead researcher Gregory Bryan, a psychologist, recorded conversations of American college students speaking to friends or people they hardly new. He isolated laughter recordings of about one second from both groups, including laughter from pairs of men and women.

Next, Bryan and his team played the recordings for 966 participants from 24 different places, including Peru, India, New Guinea, and China. They did not give the participants any additional information on the laughter or its context, asking only whether the laughter sounded like it came from friends or strangers.

Regardless of cultural differences, participants were able to detect which recordings involved friends at a rate slightly higher than random chance would predict. Participants correctly assessed which pairs were friends in 53-67% of recordings.

Accuracy increased when the laughing pair was female, with participants struggling more to identify the social meaning of laughter shared between men.

Understanding the Sounds of Laughter

The researchers conducted an acoustic analysis to assess differences between the recordings. They found laughter shared among friends sounded different, with a higher pitch and more erratic volume.

This suggests laughter plays the same important role in social bonding across cultures, meaning laughter is an evolved social norm that aids human cooperation. Some researchers believe human laughter evolved from the pants and breathing patterns that some non-human primates—including chimpanzees—display when they are playing.


  1. Bryant, G. A., Fessler, D. M., Fusaroli, R., Clint, E., Aarøe, L., Apicella, C. L., . . . Zhou, Y. (2016). Detecting affiliation in colaughter across 24 societies. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi:10.1073/pnas.1524993113
  2. Doucleff, M. (2016, April 11). Ha ha ha haha. The sound of laughter tells more than you think. Retrieved from
  3. O’Hare, R. (2016, April 12). Getting in on the joke: Listening to how two people laugh together can reveal whether they are friends or total strangers. Retrieved from

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  • alice R

    alice R

    April 12th, 2016 at 10:33 AM

    smiles and laughter transcend all language and cultural barriers it seems :)

  • Suzann


    April 12th, 2016 at 2:29 PM

    I love it that even though this big world keeps so many of us apart that this is a universal language that anyone can understand. And to make it even more compelling you can tell when it is sincerely between friends and when not. Just amazing and beautiful in so many ways.

  • Samuel


    April 13th, 2016 at 11:42 AM

    Wondering why laughter between men would be harder to interpret than that between women?
    I will say that as a male it doesn’t feel as natural to have those easy going kinds of relationships with other guys that women seem to have with one another.
    In many ways they seem a little more forced than that which women experience.

  • Olivia


    April 14th, 2016 at 1:54 PM

    You’re never fully dressed without a smile
    an adage that holds true across the ages
    and now we know across cultural lines as well

  • Walker


    April 16th, 2016 at 3:10 PM

    I don’t think that there is anything out there that feels as good as a laugh session with a best friend.

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