Whether we mean to or not, we’re all constantly judging each other, on everything from our handshakes to our gym clothes. Even our laugh — something we think of as involuntary — isn’t safe from this constant unconscious scrutiny, implying a range of potentially negative traits across both class and gender. We’ve all nudged a friend in a restaurant or movie theater on hearing a terrible or inappropriate laugh: Maybe it’s a guy with a shrill, emasculating giggle, or a woman with the husky, booming laugh of a Wild West bordello madame. Perhaps a person’s laugh makes them sound psychotically evil, or like an uncivilized buffoon. Maybe it’s someone whose laugh just flat-out sucks.
The big question, of course, is this: If you have a laugh you hate — and that you feel is causing other people to make unwanted assumptions about you — is there any way for you to change it?
First, the Bad News
Unfortunately, your involuntary laugh — that big belly laugh that erupts all the way from your diaphragm — is there for good. The thing to bear in mind here, though, is that it’s impossible to tailor your laugh to fit whatever specific image you’re trying to project anyway. While it’s generally true that guttural laughs like grunts, pants and snorts are perceived less positively than more musical laughs (literally, a “hahaha” sound), there aren’t any scientific studies that show we universally associate certain laughs with certain personalities.
“There are no specific sounds that would make a laugh objectively ‘too dirty’ or ‘too feminine,’” says Nadine Lavan, a psychologist at the University of London who specializes in laughter and nonverbal communication. “Laughter is totally dependent on the context and the listener — if you’re being judged unfavorably, that’s probably more of a reflection on who’s listening to you than on your laugh.”
In other words, we all interpret laughs differently, so the idea of a one-size-fits-all laugh is, well, laughable. Or to put it another way: If someone truly judges you based on your laugh, that says way more about them as a person than your laugh could ever say about you.
Now, the Good News
The thing few people realize about laughter is that the big belly laugh — the one we’re most wary of — only happens about 20 percent of the time. The rest of our laughs aren’t an involuntary reaction to something we find funny, but a part of our everyday language, injected into conversation as a sort of verbal punctuation. Whether it’s a polite, deferential titter or an encouraging, affectionate chuckle, they work as a way of easily communicating anything from respect to scorn to awkward embarrassment. This doesn’t mean that such a laugh is fake — or even that we do it consciously — they’re just not the same as the laughter that erupts in response to something we find genuinely hilarious.
Most importantly, this kind of laughter can be changed. According to a study by Jo-Anne Bachorowski in Psychological Science, the more “voice” you put into your laugh — i.e., the more it sounds like a classic, songlike “hahaha” — the more positively the laugh is viewed. So if your, “Nice one, boss!” laugh sounds less like a manly guffaw and more like a pig uncovering a truffle, you can try consciously making it sound closer to a more traditional laugh.
It helps, too, to make a mental note of when you’re laughing — whether it’s to soften the awkwardness of a dumb thing you said, or simply just to fill a gap in conversation — and with practice and consistency, there’s a chance your brain will rewire itself to do this kind of laugh automatically.
But Here’s Why You Should Leave Your Laugh Alone
Much in the same way that people have trouble changing their accents when learning foreign languages, Lavan warns that an altered laugh might still come across as forced.
Upon hearing it — regardless of how pleasantly musical it might be — the other brain in the conversation will immediately be skeptical. On the flip side, Lavan explains that no matter how bad your big old goofy belly laugh is, anyone who hears it will at least register it as a genuine, emotional laugh.
In short, our brains naturally favor authentic laughter, even if it’s a squealing cackle that makes you sound like a prepubescent supervillain. “So maybe,” Lavan concludes, “You should just stick with whatever laugh you’ve got.”