When Humor Humiliates

No one likes being the butt of a joke. For gelotophobes, it’s crippling.

| January-February 2010

  • Humor Humiliates

    image by Tim Gough / www.timgough.org

  • Humor Humiliates

To learn more about Gelatophobia, visit  Utne.com/HumorHumiliates .

By most accounts, laughter is good medicine, the best, even. But for some people, a good-natured chuckle isn’t funny at all. Morbidly averse to being the butt of a joke, these folks will go out of their way to avoid certain situations for fear of being ridiculed. For them, merely being around others who are laughing can cause tension and apprehension.

Until recently, such people might have been written off as spoilsports. In the mid-1990s, however, an astute psychologist recognized the problem for what it is: a debilitating fear of being laughed at. Over the past decade, psychologists, sociologists, linguists, and humor experts have examined this personality trait, known as gelotophobia. Though it sounds like an ailment involving Italian ice cream, scientists worldwide now recognize it as a distinct social phobia.

Most people fear being laughed at to some degree and do their best to avoid embarrassment. What sets gelotophobes apart is their inability to distinguish ridicule from playful teasing. For them, all laughter is aggressive, and a harmless joke can come across as a mean-spirited assault. They’re also more likely than others to assume that laughter is directed their way.

“During playful teasing, gelotophobes feel the same anger, shame, and fear that they would feel during ridicule,” says Tracey Platt, a postgraduate psychology student at the University of Zurich. “In fact, shame is at the forefront of their emotions.”

That shame is a predominant emotion explains, in part, why the trait received little scrutiny for so long. Burning shame creates more shame, and is rarely acknowledged to others. But in the mid-1990s, a patient of German psychologist Michael Titze revealed how a series of childhood humiliations had led to a morbid fear of laughter and a life of inhibition. The patient acknowledged that she had waited more than a year to tell the therapist about it.

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