The Four Styles of Humour
Humour is as old as humanity itself, so it may seem absurd to categorise it into just four styles. However, strange as it may sound, over a dozen years ago two personality psychologists—Rod Martin and Patricia Doris—compiled the Humour Styles Questionnaire (HSQ) to help people identify which styles of humour they most often gravitated towards in their own lives. Somehow, they whittled it down to four. Like most psychological profiling techniques, this is pure gold dust for a writer, particularly if invoking humour is an area you want to explore.
By reading up on HSQ questionnaires, I found I’ve been able to pinpoint which particular strand of humour is most appropriate to use in certain situations or contexts. It’s also helpful to identify the most likely style of humour your characters are likely to possess, so it can be really invaluable in helping you craft dialogue too. To consider whether they’ll be helpful to you as a writer, here are the four styles of humour as identified by the HSQ:
This is the most amiable, well-mannered and good-spirited form of humour. It’s often used by individuals during interactions with others in an effort to appear charming and amusing, mostly intended to form relationships and enhance conversations. It does not tend to be used at one’s own expense, so affiliative humour does not probe the self too deeply, tending to rely mostly on natural wit and repartee without ever feeling the need to undermine one’s own position by resorting to self-deprecation. Instead, it seeks to portray oneself as benevolent and aims to leave others with a positive impression of a well-meaning social persona. In short, affiliative humour is used to influence how others feel about you, rather than express how you feel about yourself.
This is where things get more interesting. This form of humour is where an individual aims to express themselves a little more openly, seeking to find amusement inside and outside of social situations by laughing at one’s own foibles, but in a constructive way. The aim of self-enhancing humour is to stay positive whilst keeping oneself smiling and relatively unfazed in the face of life’s complexities, wrestling with fate’s occasionally tragic curveballs. Of course, it does not shy away from the realities of life, nor the faults residing in one’s own personality, but this style of humour has a hopeful tinge to it in an attempt to fortify the self in an act of self-improvement. Putting it simply, self-enhancing humour helps people attempt to look on the bright side, no matter what life happens to throw at you.
This form of humour can be cutting, abrasive, sardonic and ultimately offensive to other people. Often it masks some degree of prejudice or victimisation, so it knows little motive other than to attack and lambast other people until the target of its ire has been sufficiently put down a peg. Aggressive humour is used as a weapon, occasionally resorting to techniques such as sarcasm and ridicule to make one’s intentions apparent. Basically, it could be seen as the humour of trash talk and hostility—it may well be tempered by a deadpan or a wry delivery, which sometimes fools others into thinking it’s harmless or innocuous, but if you dig beneath the surface you’ll find it’s the most vicious form of humour there is.
This is essentially the opposite of self-enhancing humour, whereby an individual belittles themselves with self-pity often at their own expense. Tending to joke about or even publicly exhibit their own faults in a foolhardy attempt to win favour in social interactions, unwittingly it may go against the individual’s own advantage. It’s the ultimate kind of mocking self-disparagement which aims to raise a smile from others, which it may do on occasion, but it does nothing to make themselves feel better or more comfortable in their own skin. At its heart, self-defeating humour is a demonstration of deeply negative feelings harboured about oneself, perhaps when living in self-denial, which makes it hard for people to know whether to laugh, or whether to cry. It’s the most tragic and potentially cringe-worthy of all the humours.
No doubt there will be many different nuances to humour which you can really sink your teeth into as you begin the process of writing and bring your characters to life. But knowing the key differences in the four styles of humour is a good start nonetheless, as it can help writers who have a good eye for comic scenarios to choose the most appropriate style of humour for the moment. In the end, this can help writers ensure the humour in their work feels as grounded as it does in everyday life. It’s a serious business, after all.
© 2018 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.