Uneasy laughter


My son had looked eagerly towards the six grade field trip to the science museum. So it surprised me that on the afternoon of the field trip I received a call from the vice principal saying there was a problem. Evidently my son and his seat mate, annoyed by the student behind them who wouldn’t stop kicking their seat, tied the student’s shoe laces together.  They had tied them so tight that they couldn’t be untied and had to be cut. Now the vice principal was demanding that my son write a letter of apology.

So I asked to talk to him. “Now tell me exactly what happened?”

“I asked Chad to stop kicking the seat, but he wouldn’t.” My son explained.

“Then, how did you tie Chad’s laces together?” I asked a bit perplexed.

I could hear the vice principal warning my son not to mention names.

“Well, his shoe laces were untied, flopping around,” my son continued. “The bus stopped because of all the people…  near the museum. He stood up to look. So we reached under the seat and tied them together. But we couldn’t see what we were doing. We tied them in front of the bar, the one under the seat. When he tried to get out he kept pulling them against the bar, really hard. We could have untied the knot it if he hadn’t pulled so hard.”

If the vice principal had been listening closely, he could have heard me laughing on the other end of the phone. In my mind I could see the annoying  Chad kicking the back of their seat, or popping up and down in his own – a regular hyperactive nuisance so unaware of what he was doing that he didn’t notice the two boys in front of him surreptitiously tying his laces together. And when he did notice, his attempt to jerk the knot lose through brute force only made things worse. So I told my son not to mention my laughing, and just go ahead and write the apology. I would talk to him at the Boy Scout meeting after school.

My son had not mentioned which friend had helped him pulled off this caper. However it became evident half way through the Boy Scout meeting when another mother entered with the look of a slow boil and called out “John, I need to talk to you!” with an intimidating tone of rebuke that caused everyone to tremble. However, I had to bite my cheeks to keep from laughing again. My son and the other boy were “trustworthy scouts.” So much so that their leader gave them extra responsibilities. It crossed my mind that perhaps he had taught the typical lore of tying knots too well.

But there was another reason the John’s mother was so irritated at him.  John’s father had a scar all the way around his ankle. It was the result of a prank that occurred when he was much younger. Two boys had a strung a wire tightly across a trail, hoping to get their kicks laughing when some one tripped and fell down. However, it was strung so taut that when he ran into it, the force caused the wire to recoil and almost completely sever his ankle. His parents had rushed him to the hospital with his food barely attached to his leg. Fortunately there was a doctor skilled in this kind of surgery living in the town and through very meticulous surgery he was able to re-attach the foot in a manner so it would function normally, but the huge scar remained.

We all want to laugh; it feels good. My son and his friend didn’t cause any lasting damage to Chad in their practical joke that was an attempt to teach him a lesson. But our laughter often comes at the expense of others. Sometimes it results in permanent harm. It is not just laughing at others in their embarrassing moment. Often it involves extensive planning to cause the embarrassing moment. So what is really behind this uneasy kind of laughter?

This entry was posted in Group psychology, Laughter and humor, Leadership and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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