Chronically unfunny men tend to wind up riding a vicious cycle. They make jokes and, when those jokes fall flat, they start pushing the envelope. It’s predictable behavior. Why? Because humor is understood implicitly to be a masculine trait and when men’s masculinity is threatened, many become confrontational. Research suggests that men who feel like their humor or camaraderie isn’t leading into social acceptance tend to react by going macho with it, rolling out jokes that mock women, queer people, and anyone else determined to be effeminate or other.
“If we’re not good at being funny — like if we’re not tall or not making money –we might feel a masculinity threat where we don’t feel like we’re living up to our own internal standards of what we should be as men,” says Thomas Ford, a psychology professor at Western Carolina University. Ford and his research team have found that when men score high on Precarious Manhood Beliefs, an inventory of implicit and rigid understandings about sexuality, or believe their status is at risk, use derogatory jokes to play defense. “We think enjoying this kind of humor is a way for them to distance themselves the qualities that are a threat to them, mainly femininity,” Ford explains.
Although a large body of research looks at how humor helps men attract women, achieve social dominance, and advance in their careers, very little has examined why some men aren’t funny and the ways in which that creates social problems. Ford suspects that anxiety around humor has everything to do with anxiety about gender and that the only way for unfunny men to find peace is to be honest with themselves about their shortcoming.
Even though humor is subjective to some extent, is it scientifically accurate to say that some men are just not that funny?
Oh, absolutely. Humor production is associated with a number of different kinds of personality traits like extroversion. Extroversion is probably one of the most highly correlated with the ability to be funny. Some men are just more socially gifted and interacting with people is just easier, more rewarding, fun, and energizing for these extroverted guys. And some guys are going to struggle in a lot of ways socially, even if it’s just talking to other people, and being funny is just one way they’re likely to struggle interpersonally.
Is feeling unfunny as a man maybe comparable to feeling anxiety?
Anxiety is negatively related different dimensions of senses of humor. I would imagine if a social situation is creating anxiety, a person is not likely to see humor or produce humor. So guys and people in general who feel more socially anxious would be less funny.
So in a sense it’s a more emasculating form of anxiety.
Perhaps. Being funny is a stereotypically male trait, and that probably comes back to the qualities associated with being funny. Good qualities a woman might be looking for in a man — strength, intelligence, earning potential, and these other things we associate with being a good man.
What theories are there for why humor is so tied to masculinity? Why do men so desperately want to be funny?
With romantic relationships and the way psychologists usually talk about dating, mating, and courtship, men have a greater payoff for coming off as funny than women. It’s believed that when men are making others laugh, it reflects a whole host of other positive qualities like intelligence and quick-wittedness — things that are considered attractive to a potential mate. So it is a dating advantage to say funny things and make others laugh.
What about being funny at work or other social situations outside of dating? Why is it important for men to be funny there as well?
There is some workplace research that suggests higher status individuals tend to initiate humor more than lower status people. It’s almost as if it’s reserved for the higher status people to initiate and, in a sense, it’s an obligation of the lower status people to be amused.
Humor can also elevate perceived social status within a group. Let’s say there are two men of equal status — middle or lower status — and one of them is able to use humor, maybe that person would informally have greater status. He might be able to exert more influence on decisions and even the culture of the organization compared to someone who can’t use humor as well.
In your study specifically, why did men who insecure about masculinity prefer more offensive humor?
Some men see masculinity as something that can be lost, not a real stable quality. They believe people can fail a masculinity test when it’s challenged or undermined. When men have that idea of masculinity, when their masculinity is threatened they find ways to compensate for the threat and restore that sense of masculinity. Research has shown that some men will respond to that threat by discriminating against women. And we thought that maybe sexist or anti-gay humor could function as that mechanism for restoring a sense of threatened masculinity.
So it wasn’t just that they showed a preference towards this humor, but it actually made them feel better?
Yes, it made them feel like they had restored a sense of masculinity in the eyes of themselves and others in the immediate social context. And this is particularly true for men who think masculinity can be threatened and taken away.
That’s interesting because that seems counterintuitive when it comes to using humor to attract women.
Yes, because it would seem to distance themselves from women. But, at the same time, it also restores the idea of them as manly. Or at least, they think it does. So when that happens, these men are sort of scrambling to restore a sense of self that’s been undermined. I’m not sure of the extent to which they prefer anti-gay or sexist humor over other mechanisms for restoring masculinity. What we did in that study is eliminate those other options. When given other choices, we’re not sure what they’d pick.
Do these men prefer other types of derogatory humor other than anti-women or anti-gay?
Humor that targets other groups that aren’t the antithesis of masculinity, there’s no psychological benefit in terms of affirmation of masculinity. When masculinity is threatened, racist humor isn’t going to help.
Interesting. So do these men need to be threatened to enjoy homophobic jokes?
When guys who believe masculinity is precarious aren’t threatened, there’s no evidence that they prefer anti-gay or sexist humor more than other forms of humor. It’s activated among those guys under those conditions of a threat. For guys who are a little more secure or see masculinity as a more stable quality of the self, threats don’t activate the same preference towards this humor, probably because they’re not experiencing it as a threat.
If men are insecure about being funny, or trying and failing to be funny, does this threaten their masculinity? Since they seem to be so tied together?
Since humor production is so closely tied to the male prowess, that very well could be. That’s a connection I’ll bring up to my grad students.
Do you have any sense of what happens to men with wives who are funnier than they are? Or just men who are around funny women?
I don’t think there’s any research on it, but it could be parallel to a man’s experience when he doesn’t make as much money as his wife. Both are seen as stereotypically male roles by function, to be funny and make money. I would just hypothesize that a guy with high PMB would feel more threatened if their wife or girlfriend was funnier.
What would you tell men about humor and how to use it as a social tool, for good or ill?
You’re funny when that’s not your primary goal in informal interactions. Become more comfortable interacting with people and funniness follows. Funniness isn’t the endpoint, enjoying being with other people is. Funniness is just a byproduct.