Richmond Proper: On contagious laughter

It’s happened to him, to her, and to you. A moment so silly, so juvenile, yet so undeniably human: contagious laughter. This week, our guide to all that is proper tackles an interesting topic–what do we do when we can’t stop laughing.

As you may have gathered from the very first edition of Richmond Proper, I have no formal etiquette training to speak of. In fact, I became particularly interested in etiquette because of how foreign it was to me when I cracked open my first Emily Post volume about six years ago. I went to look up something specific and ended up engrossed in the text, peeling back the layers of etiquette mystery with a sense of wonder.

Some situations have come up recently which have made me feel like a novice again, in a good way — with all the intense curiosity of a n00b. While sitting in quiet places like church or a nearly-empty restaurant, something or other (a noise, a joke, a mistake of some sort) has provoked me to laugh. And I don’t mean just a short guffaw or a giggle, I mean a prolonged, shoulder-shaking, breath-stealing fit. Others were involved, and the laughter spread. I tried with every ounce of will within me to stop laughing, with pathetic results. The laughter just petered out very gradually, after what seemed like an eternity of mixed mirth and humiliation.

I call this “the church effect,” because everything seems to be a million percent more hilarious when you’re not supposed to be laughing. And the worst part is that there is always at least one other person held captive with you. If you can avoid making eye contact with this person once the madness has started, that’s a tiny victory because seeing his or her red, contorted face trying to hold in the laughter just makes you crack up more. Even if you do manage to turn away, every time you think you’re getting it under control, you hear all the wriggling and gasping for breath next to you, and it’s a bucket of LOLs all over again. Then, you draw even more people into the vortex because the sight of two people trying really hard to stop laughing is…well, funny.

That “I Love to Laugh” scene in Mary Poppins is apparently not all that far-fetched, which is probably why it resonated with us even as small children. Why do you sympathize with the gentleman who inconveniences everyone with his uncontrollable laughter? Because you can’t help laughing any more than he can.

Just thinking about this topic makes the corners of my mouth turn up while I’m sitting here alone, typing. But I was none too pleased with my conduct, especially regarding this one instance where it was incredibly rude and disrespectful for me to be even smiling, let alone bursting with glee. A solemn countenance was the only appropriate facial expression for the moment, and I blew it.

Like the rest of my Type A brothers and sisters, I do not enjoy adding something else to the list of Things I Have No Control Over. Frankly, it’s downright terrifying. And this is the ultimate etiquette conundrum, because once you’re in its throes, there is absolutely no way you can make yourself stop.

It’s not a matter of making excuses or not trying hard enough. Laughter, it seems, is too primal and involuntary a behavior for you to squash. Its meaning is the same in all cultures, where the meanings for almost everything else diverge. Even the deaf-blind, who cannot hear or see laughter, will reportedly laugh heartily. In a 1996 scholarly article that appeared in American Scientist, Robert R. Provine called this “evidence of a strong maturational and genetic basis.” The same article mentions the following episode:

Consider the bizarre events of the 1962 outbreak of contagious laughter in Tanganyika. What began as an isolated fit of laughter (and sometimes crying) in a group of 12- to 18-year-old schoolgirls rapidly rose to epidemic proportions. Contagious laughter propagated from one individual to the next, eventually infecting adjacent communities. The epidemic was so severe that it required the closing of schools. It lasted for six months.

I can’t even wrap my head around this. It sounds more like a scene from the usual weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird David Lynch than real life. We humans are trapped in our own surreality. And we can be destroyed, like Luke Skywalker in the training cave, only by what’s already in our gut, living deep inside of us.

Before we get too abstract, there are some practical applications for our newfound fear knowledge of contagious laughter. You can try not to get yourself into these situations in the first place by avoiding sitting next to someone who routinely gets you giggling. Be calm and think calm thoughts when you’re in a quiet place. During the split second between whatever it is that makes you start laughing and the moment where your gaze meets the other person’s, look away from them. Don’t even let that first knowing glance occur. But let’s face it, even these measures won’t ensure a giggle-free time.

Once the laughing has commenced, the only things that have helped curb it for me have been (1) trying to turn my thoughts forcibly to something really sad, and (2) biting my tongue quite hard until all I can think about is the fact that my tongue hurts. Of course even if I do corral myself, my work is completely undone if the other person / people are still losing it. Perhaps, with such an involuntary foe as laughter, it is enough for people to see that I’m trying — really, I am! — to stop.

So, it’s clear that we can’t control laughter. Maybe it’s the great equalizer in that respect. And it’s a good opportunity for us to learn and apply grace, giving others who can’t stop laughing a break, and giving ourselves a break when it happens to us. The best thing to do is to be thankful it doesn’t happen more often at inappropriate times, and to enjoy it when it is appropriate — which, luckily, is most of the time.


Need some advice or want to share your own etiquette-related story? Hit us up at Richmond Proper on Tumblr, email, or use the form below.

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Tess Shebaylo

Tess Shebaylo is a freelance writer, crafter, history geek, and compulsive organizer. She works at Tumblr and lives in Church Hill with her daughter, Morella.

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