The Difference Between Smiling and Laughing

Smiling and laughing are often associated together, and while they often occur together, there is a distinct difference between the two.  Research by Alleen Pace Nilsen and Don L.F. Nilsen explores the difference in more detail:

“Smiles are more likely to express feelings of satisfaction or good will, while laughter comes from surprise or a recognition of an incongruity.” (page 184)

Smiles are most often connected to a positive experience, while laughing is related to something unexpected, but not necessarily positive.  And while both can be faked, they’re most natural cause comes from humor.

In fact, the difference between smiling and laughing is similar to the difference between humor and comedy.  Laughing is generally evoked by something being funny (aka comedy)–a joke or story that sets an expectation and then breaks it.  Humor, which can be funny, can also just elicit positive emotions–often signaled by smiling.

But perhaps the biggest difference between the two is that smiling is personal and laughing is public:

“Laughter is a social phenomenon. That’s why ‘getting the giggles’ never happens when we are alone.  In contrast, people often smile when they are reading or even when they are having private thoughts.” (page 185)

What’s the point? The point is that when working to incorporate humor into the workplace, you are more likely to elicit smiles than laughter.  Why? Because there is a fear of laughing in the office, and rather than publicly express that an employee finds something funny, they’re more likely to privately enjoy the moment.

So as you attempt humor in the office, don’t worry about not hearing any laughter–instead look for the smiles on your co-workers faces as they enjoy the benefits of humor.

Source: Encyclopedia of 20th-Century American Humor by Alleen Nilsen and Don L.F. Nilsen. Westport, CT, 2000.

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