Should the Oral Historian Laugh?

You have multiple and at times competing objectives in an oral history interview.  Most importantly you want a great interview, where the person reflects deeply about her or his life experiences and offers her or his interpretations of the past.  Doing so depends on developing rapport and also asking tough questions — questions that may cause that rapport to diminish.

But you also want a clean, professional recording to ensure the interview can be used in a multiplicity of ways in the future.  For that reason we typically strive to avoid unnecessary verbal utterances in an interview.

But what do you do when the narrator says something funny?  Should you laugh?

Sitting quietly and working hard to stifle our laughter could give off the appearance that you’re a cold and unsympathetic listener — both to the narrator and the future listener.  The laughter is an event on the recording that elicits meaning and and taps into the emotional dimension of the interview. Would your joining in the laughter, assuming you find the moment humorous and worthy of laughter, detract from the interview?

Before I address that question, let me first say laughter can in some cases be very damaging.  In his essay, “Navigating Life Review Interviews with Trauma Survivors,” Mark Klempner addresses the potential harmful impact of nervous and defensive laughter.   This reaction can unwittingly take place when the interviewer experiences acute distress while hearing about instances of extreme violence.  Klempner argues that this laughter can disrupt the narrator’s effort to externalize the traumatic event.  This laughter is what Klempner refers to as a “distorted reaction.”1

There may also be times where the narrator laughs at something that you find disturbing, where your joining in would also be a distorted reaction that creates an uneasy feeling of complicity.  Don’t feign laughter or amusement.  At the same time, communicating your disgust would be problematic too.  Here having your narrator laugh awkwardly by her or himself, while you watch on with an inquisitive look, could be a powerful moment in your interview.

But there are times when we truly want to laugh along with our narrators.  Where you find something funny, laughing out loud could help further strengthen rapport, and it also could further reveal the intersubjectivity of the interview itself.  Could you alternatively smile broadly, nod your head and give two thumbs up quietly?  Perhaps if you can be so controlled.  In the end, while I would, when called for, deploy the full array of expressive non-verbal communication that you can tap into, joining in with the laughter may in fact be the better response.

We need to be reflective about our emotional responses, not non-emotional.  Those of us who do our work in communities over the long haul need to develop affectionate relationships as we accompany people in their struggles.  Laughing together is one piece of that.


  1. Mark Klempner, “Navigating Life Review Interviews with Survivors of Trauma.” in The Oral History Reader 2nd ed., ed. Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson (London: Routledge, 1998), 198-210.

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