Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

When a Laugh is not a Laugh

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This is a quickie.

I’ve talked before about how an interviewer has to be careful sometimes in sharing a laugh with an interviewee.  Laughing can make people seem connected to an idea more so than many other ways people interact.  Sometimes, an interviewer can’t afford to have an audience think they have a particular bent.

But this is about the interviewee’s laugh and not in a good way.  Of course laughter can be natural, fun, disarming.  It is one of the primary ways we connect.  But sometimes, a laugh is an anthropological proxy for something very different.  In some cases, a laugh says that the interviewee is nervous and they are trying to draw the interviewer into the interviewee’s artificial mood so that they can feel more in control of the situation.

Sometimes, a laugh is intended to dismiss, as when an interviewer asks a question and before the question is out, the interviewee is laughing in a way that clearly says, “That’s a ridiculous question”, followed up by something that isn’t a direct affront but sounds passive aggressive or patronizing.

And sometimes, the laugh is a disguise for aggression.  We’ve all seen it.  The conversation that is held behind gritted teeth because to scowl or grimace or bear teeth without the upturned corners of the mouth might jeopardize what the laugher is trying to achieve.  It might be working their way out of an uncomfortable situtation for which they have much embarassment and no appreciation.  Or it could be dealing with someone they dislike or fear but dare not be obvious about it.  Or it could be interacting with someone for whom they have no respect.

There are a lot of interpersonal dynamics in play during an interview.  The interviewer’s job is to keep his in check and not be drawn in by any play on the his ego by the interviewee’s ego.  This includes the seemingly harmless but potentially crippling use of laughter.  I’ve said it before, but it’s important for the interviewer to be nothing but a mirror to the interviewee.  In that way, they lose any ability to manipulate and are left to just answer the question.

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Written by Interviewer

April 28, 2014 at 14:23

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