Insults Amongst Friends: Why We Do It

poker 2A group of my male friends and I get together about once a month to play a little poker. Because my wife and I did some traveling last winter, I happened to miss a couple of these fun events. Upon my return, I was notified of when the next poker night would occur. As I arrived, one of my buddies, noticing my entrance, cried out, “Oh no, Jeff’s back!” On the heals of this comment came a chorus of moans, sprinkled with laughter. Accompaning all of this were some warm handshakes and pats on the back.

Poker 1Mike Gilmartin, a fellow player, always writes up a little summary of the evening events. To give you a little flavor of how, upon my return, the rest of the evening went, I thought I would share with you his summary. I edited out some of it because unless you know the backstories of our relationships, you would have no idea what he was referring to.  Here’s what is left:


First hand won: Unbeatable golf partners, Stevie Wonder & Mike, split the pot.

Last hand (showdown) won: Mike’s artfully constructed full-house is bulldozed by Gordie’s wild card-tainted straight flush.

Best beat: Steve’s four kings put a whuppin’ on Almont’s four jacks in Bowling for Dollars….

Psychology major at work moment; In order to break his poker losing streak, Almont walks around the table three times, clicks his heels, and voila, starts winning.

baked-piePie in the sky moment: Woody delivers two, count ’em, two pies for the game. When he is out of the room, there is talk of chipping in to buy him a frilly apron for next season’s games. Gordie will check with Nancy [Woody’s wife] to see if Woody favors gingham or polka dots.

Now we’re wondering why we missed him moment: Jeff’s return to the poker table reminds one and all that incoherence, forgetfulness, and ineptness are not all that admirable….

Thanks to all for playing.

scranton baseballA couple of weeks ago, I first brought up this topic of friends insulting one another (see post titled “Insults Amongst Friends“). There, in an effort to give you a sense of how this tends to get played out, I described some of the events that transpired when my friends and I recently went on a baseball trip. Today’s post is focussed on explaining why we do insult one another.

Why Friends Playfully Insult Each Other

Business success - Group of diverse colleagues having a laugh together

One answer that quickly comes to mind is that it’s fun. The insults often lead to laughter, and laughter is typically a pleasant experience. If we do something that leads to a pleasant feeling, we tend to do similar acts in the future in the hope that it will again lead to pleasant feelings.

But this answer begs the question, why do insults among friends lead to laughter? Mike, the writer of the poker night summary I shared above, when asked this question, said that it is actually a way to say to your buddies that you like them without being mawkish about it.

president roastHis comment reminded me of a number of comedy roasts that are readily available on Youtube. If you’ve watched any of them, no doubt you’ve noticed that the person being roasted is actually the person being honored. Nevertheless, they are subjected to a barrage of insults most of the time, although there are, toward the end of a series of insults by each presenter, a sentence or two of heartwarming praise.

Mike, when I discussed this with him, added that, “Our friends, rather than feel bad because I insult them in my summary write-up, are more likely to actually feel bad if I accidentally forget to insult them. The insults are a way that brings us all together under the banner that “No shame is too great to bear.”

Laughing 2Although there is much truth to Mike’s take on this, I think there is a little more going on. In my view, most of the time that we laugh it’s because something reminds us of a shameful experience which touches a set of nerves even before we have time to think more fully about what is actually going on. Upon realizing we are among friends who all have had to undergo a shameful experience or two, it unites us in this common experience and we are relieved that this is being shared with those whom we are confident like us despite our very real shortcomings. It is this sense of relief that is expressed as laughter.

laughter 3And our laughter serves as well as a special form of communication. When someone tries out a friendly insult, there is a very brief moment when the insulter and those listening in are not quite sure that the insulted party will take the kidding as a real insult intended to make someone actually feel awful. Doing something that leads to a friend feeling awful would be experienced as shame. When the target of the playful insult laughs, there is a sense of relief that the playful insult has been taken in a pleasant way, and it is this relief that is expressed as shared laughter among friends.

Laughter is believed to be instinctual because even people who are born blind and deaf still laugh. And those who study the connection of our brains and laughter have found that it begins by triggering some action in the oldest part of the brain, a part of the brain that came about when language and thinking development was at its most rudimentary stage. And so we are provoked to laugh at times even when we are not sure why we are doing it.

Professor Robert R. Provine

Professor Robert R. Provine

Robert R. Provine, is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Professor Provine conducted a number of studies of laughter and authored the book Laughter: a Scientific Investigation. One of his studies was a survey of laughter. He and some graduate students listened in on average conversations in public places and made notes. And in a survey of 1,200 “laugh episodes,” he found that only 10%-20% of laughs were generated by anything resembling a joke.

The other 80%-90% of comments that received a laugh were dull non-witticisms.  For example, people often begin to laugh as they start to leave some people after a period during which they were all interacting and they began to say such things like, “I’ll see you guys later” and “It was nice meeting you.” Why would people be prone to laugh then?

Well, it seems to me that just as we are departing from an interaction with others, we may have deep down in the emotional center of our brains, some concern that our interactions might have come off as negative or even shameful. As we begin to observe the behavior of the other parties that were involved in the interaction, some may be perceived as indicating that things had gone well. goodbyeComments like, “Gee, this was really fun,” or “Let’s get together again real soon,” are monitored carefully to see if they are perceived as sincere. At such times, sometimes we begin to experience at some deep level of our emotional brain that some of these comments do indeed appear to be sincere, and a sense of relief is experienced. These perceived reliefs are expressed as laughter, or nervous laughter, as they are sometimes referred to.

Our laughter then communicates to others that at least someone enjoyed the interactions, and there is some relief experienced by the other parties concerned about how their own interactions were perceived, and the laughter spreads.

laughter 4There is a similar phenomenon going on when we are amongst friends. When our friends point out our shortcomings, the emotional part of our brain begins to become concerned. The relief that we experience a fraction of a second later because we realize we are among people whom we have some good reason to believe like us despite our shortcoming is expressed as laughter. There is then some additional relief experienced by others from the sound of the insulted parties laugh and the laughter spreads.

Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

Bob Dylan On Laughter

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.


  1. Jeff, As I have told you before I love your posts! They always engage me and cause me to think and rethink.
    This whole laughter series touches on a nerve for me professionally. I work with many “troubled” adolescents and many times when they are getting out of control, my response is…I laugh. I explain quickly that it is nervous laughter but that explanation has not been well received. The child usually chooses to take the position that I am laughing at him or her. I do my best to dissuade him or her of that but they then get angry at me.
    I understand that is counterproductive to the healing process and am doing my best to control my laughter, yet when someone is spouting something outrageous I can’t help but laugh. Any thoughts or advice? Thank you!

    • Hi Karen,

      Much thanks for your kind words of support for my posts.

      In your comment, you mention that you work with many “troubled” adolescents and many times when they are getting out of control, your response is laughter. You are looking for some thoughts or advice on how to handle this in a better way.

      Your descriptor “getting out of control” would have to become more specific before I could feel comfortable offering some words of advice. Nevertheless, in a very general way, my approach would probably be something like this:

      Create a situation in which things are very likely to be in control and you and the child are in a relatively pleasant mood. This can be done by saying some authentic positive comments to the adolescent, perhaps playing some music that he or she likes, and spending a little time discussing a pleasant topic of mutual interest. When the mood is right (relatively stress free) describe the last time things were “out of control” as you saw it, but I would avoid using that descriptor. Then ask the adolescent the following series of questions:

      When that situation occurred, what were you desiring would happen?

      What was interfering with what you desired?

      If a similar situation should arise, what do you [the adolescent] desire would happen?

      “What can I [Karen] do to help achieve your desire?”

      It seems to me, Karen, that if you can negotiate a set of agreements that makes sense to both parties on how to handle the situations that you now view as turning into an “out of control” situation, you may end up feeling things are more in control at such times and therefore you will be less likely to have the feelings that lead to your “nervous laughter.”

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