Using humor to connect locally and globally – workshop summary (part 1)

This post is the first of two about a workshop I run for a merry crowd of over 70 participants at the SIETAR Europe 2013 congress in Tallinn, Estonia. A broader summary and the PowerPoint presentation I used will be published in the congress proceedings and made available for the SIETAR members (contact me for more information

I started the workshop off by making sure that the participants will experience at least a couple of laughs – I played this video:

Now, go and tell me you didn’t laugh… I often begin my workshops with it and invariably to the same effect: within 2 minutes more than a half of the participants are e laughing – subjects to the contagion-effect themselves.

Following the video I introduced an operational definition of humor in psychology  and used the different elements of it (reflecting different branches of psychology) to structure my workshop.

Smile & Laughter

To follow-up on the contagious laughter video, I draw on different theories and research discussing the evolutionary roots and universality of smiling across modern and native cultures (e.g. Ekman, 1969).

This universality of smiling, however, goes beyond the realms of cultures created by humans: also “the chimpanzees display a complex, flexible facial expression repertoire with many physical and functional similarities to humans” and there is a connection between the primates’ so called play-face (a relaxed, open mouth displaying the lower teeth) and the human smile and laughter (Parr and Waller 2006, p. 221). (If you don’t believe that, check out this great example of political humor.)

Emotions & Motivation

Positive emotions and mirth resulting from humour are closely related to a well-known, and prehistoric-old, dopaminergic mesolimbic reward networks responsible for flowing one’s brain with dopamine after hearing a good joke, just as well as when one has achieved a priced goal, has had sex or consumed a sufficient amount of chocolate (or certain opiates; Martin, 2007).

However, during the workshop, I also discussed humor in relation to a somewhat more complex emotional state – motivation – and draw on a theory by Apter (1982). He stated that humour appreciation depends on two different motivational states: telic (serious, goal oriented) and para-telic (palyful). According to Apter, it is much more likely that a person will appreciate and respond to humour if he or she is in the para-telic motivational mode, i.e. when the goals are of secondary importance and one is focused more on the activity itself.

Another simple fact about humor and laughter, is that when you’re having a laugh it is almost biologically impossible to feel sad or angry – laughter blocks out this negative emotions. (As I was trying to illustrate during the workshop:)

Piotr Pluta at SIETAR humor-workshop

Social interaction & Cognitive process

The first notion I made in this part of the presentation was that in order to share a laugh together with someone else, one has to a certain degree share knowledge related to and an attitude towards the focal point of a joke being made (Zajdman, 1995). This mechanism, however, can also work another way around: laughing together with someone will make you perceive him or her as more similar to yourself.

This effect was shown in an experiment by Fraley and Aron (2004). In the experiment, randomly paired individuals that had not known each other, participated in a series of structured interactions systematically manipulated to either create or not create a shared humorous experience. The results indicated that the shared humour experienced significantly increased the feeling of closeness perceived by the participants.

I also discussed the different functions humour serves on the group level and referred to the inside jokes phenomenon, and how the groups use it to differentiate themselves from other groups and how the understanding of the inside humour can be a gateway for new members to the an accelerated process of socialization (Vinton, 1989). Also a mild put-down humour, i.e. disparagement humour, can be beneficial in the process, as along as one plays by a certain set of rules, e.g. “Don’t put-down a group member that isn’t present or that isn’t able or willing to laugh at him or herself” or “Certain people should never be targets” (more rules and explanation in a study by Terrion & Ashforth, 2002).

Furthermore, I very briefly discussed how humour, in that it invariably diminishes the importance of situations and problems (Apter, 1982), can be seen both as an immediate tension-release mechanism as well as a part of a broader strategy for coping with stress and assuming a humorous outlook on life (Martin, 2007, pp. 282-297). Interestingly enough, already Freud referred to humour as one of the most mature and positive defence mechanisms (1960 [1905]) – a little glimmer of sunshine in his otherwise somewhat gloomy theory…

Cross-cultural context

A study conducted recently by Kryś and Hansen (2013) investigated how the perception of smiling and non-smiling individuals in terms of intelligence changes across cultures. In general, the Poles perceive smiling individuals as slightly dummer than the non-smiling ones; in contrast, the Germans (wait for it… ) perceived smiling individuals as much more intelligent than the non-smiling ones (contrasting to the common believe people might hold about Germans and the sense of humor, right?!); and the difference was highest in favour of non-smiling individuals in Iran – which may have something to do with differences as to when and where it is appropriate to smile in different cultures.

And that takes me to the other study that I mentioned, conducted by Bell and Attardo (2010). In it, the authors investigated what difficulties the non-native speakers (NNS) are experiencing when they engage in humorous interactions with native speakers (NS). The areas the NNS were struggling were language proficiency (which is a prerequisite for being able to engage in both appreciation and creation of humour), understanding of the content (which often requires a very good knowledge of culture), and the context (not in all cultures people expect humour in same situations).


Bellow two testimonials sent in by Paul Kalfadelis and Malii Brown that participated in the workshop. Thanks for the wonderful feedback!!


If you get the chance to take part in psychologist, Piotr Pluta’s workshop on “Humour and how it allows us to connect locally and globally”,   do not miss the opportunity.  Rarely do you have the possibility to take part in a workshop that is not only very informative,  but also intellectually stimulating and highly entertaining.  I recommend Piotr’s  workshop without reservation to anyone interested in understanding how we can better connect with each other.

Dr. Paul Kalfadellis, Deputy Director – Monash MBA, Monash University


Smart and funny is a good combination, and a true description of Piotr Pluta.  Piotr’s workshop on using humor to connect locally and globally- presented at the 2013 SIETAR Europa Congress in Tallinn- was intriguing, educational and very funny.  I laughed more in more hour of Piotr’s workshop than I usually do in a day!  Piotr’s approach to the topic was brilliant and useful to me as an intercultural consultant in that he designed a workshop in which participants experienced first-hand the key lessons in using humor and were therefore more receptive to learning those lessons.

Mālii Brown, Director of Global Network Communications, intercultures


The summary will continue in Part 2 of the post, which will discuss the hypothesis of How the social media can influence the global sense of humor and give an overview of the group activities I used in the workshop.



Apter, M. J. (1982). The experience of motivation. London: Academic Press.

Bell, N., & Attardo, S. (2010). Failed humor: Issues in non-native speakers’ appreciation and understanding of humor. Intercultural Pragmatics, 7(3), 423-447.

Fraley, B., & Aron, A. (2004). The effect of a shared humorous experience on closeness in initial encounters. Personal Relationships(11), 61-78.

Freud, S. (1960). Jokes and their relation to the unconscious. New York: W. W. Norton.

Kryś, K., & Hansen, K. (2012). Only Fools Smile to Strangers? Cultural Differences in Social Perception of Smilin Individuals (unpublished study, contact:

Lennox Terrion, J., & Ashforth, B. E. (2002). From ‘I’ to ‘we’: The role of putdown humor and identity in the development of a temporary group. Human Relations, 55(1), 35-60.

Martin, R. A. (2007). The psychology of humor: an integrative approach. Burlington: Elsevier Academic Press.

Parr, L. A., & Waller, B. M. (2006). Understanding chimpanzee facial expression: insights into the evolution of communication. SCAN, 221-228.

Vinton, K. L. (1989). HUMOR IN THE WORKPLACE: It Is More Than Telling Jokes. Small Group Behavior, 20(2), 151-166.

Wikipedia. (2013, July 12). E.B. White. Retrieved from Wikiquote:

Zajdman, A. (1995). Humorous face-threatening acts: Humor as strategy. Journal of Pragmatics(23), 325-339.

Categories: Cognitive, Cross-cultural, Events, Evolutionary, Social, and Workshop/lecture.


  1. Gratuluję wystąpienia. Poczucie humoru, śmiech – płacz stanowią niezmierne ważne elementy kulturowego kodu zachowań (zwłaszcza płacz rytualny). Sam przedmiot humru – z czego się śmiejemy – stanowi wdzięczny temat do badań stereotypu.
    Jeśli ten wykad będzie gdzieś dostępny, będę wdzięczna za link.
    Gratuluję raz jeszcze i pozdrawiam,
    Ewa Masłowska

    • Thank you! I agree: the sense of humor, laughter and even cry are very important for the behavioral code in each culture. Unfortunately, the workshop was not recorded and I thus cannot share the link with you.
      Piotr Pluta