Study sheds light on the diverse and intriguing ways minorities use humor as a defense against prejudice

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A study published in the European Journal of Psychology suggests that minority group members sometimes use humor to shield themselves from prejudice. It appears that humor can even be used to exert a level of control over majority group members.

Past research on intergroup humor has overlooked minority group members’ use of humor when handling everyday interactions with majority group members.

“In our research,” study authors Anna Dobai and Nick Hopkins say, “we consider how Hungarian Roma report seeking to manage their interactions with the non-Roma majority in Hungary. Specifically, we consider how humour was reported to feature in the serious business of managing interactions where minority group members anticipated prejudice from majority group members.”

The researchers interviewed 30 Roma, members of a historically marginalized, stigmatized, and threatened minority group in Central and Eastern Europe. Anti-Roma attitudes persist heavily in Hungary, and the researchers aimed to explore how their sample might use humor to combat the prejudice they experience on a regular basis.

As Dobai and Hopkins describe, humor was reportedly used in diverse and intriguing ways by their sample. First, several respondents described situations where they had told jokes that played off Roma stereotypes to assuage embarrassment and reduce tension in interactions. While shared humor did seem to have been effective in smoothing over the described interactions, the researchers point out that this tactic did not necessarily limit prejudice, suggesting that “minority group members may be complicit in this process as they seek to manage some of the interactional difficulties associated with being stereotyped.”

Another instance when humor was used to deflect prejudice, was when it was used as a tactic for drawing out others’ attitudes. For example, some respondents reported playing into exaggerated Roma stereotypes in order to gauge the reaction — and, supposedly, the attitudes — of the people around them.

What particularly caught the researchers’ attention, was that the participants described using humor beyond the telling of jokes, by using irony and satire. These instances allowed the minority group members to exert a level of control over the situation, shielding themselves from others’ prejudiced behavior — even when it came to authority figures. For example, one respondent reported poking fun at an airport official during a bag search, by voluntarily searching the contents of his own bag and telling the official, “make sure you don’t miss out on something.”

“A key element to this humour,” Dobai and Hopkins discuss, “was the exaggerated performance of a particular role or identity which was geared to reframing the interaction . . . At one level, these interviewees exhibit compliance with authority. However, there is also an element of parody in such compliance that frames the authority’s actions as ridiculous and illegitimate.”

The authors emphasize that their sample was not representative of Hungarian Roma and that their findings cannot convey anything about the frequency with which humor is used in these interactions. Rather, the findings highlight the diverse ways in which humor can be used, in general, by minority group members.

The findings inform various avenues of research, including the way humor can be used to shift social relations. As the researchers say, “social psychologists interested in the social process whereby the “cognitive alternatives” necessary for social change (Tajfel & Turner, 1986) are articulated and disseminated could gain much from looking at minority group members’ uses of humour.”

The study, “Humour is serious: Minority group members’ use of humour in their encounters with majority group members”, was authored by Anna Dobai and Nick Hopkins.

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