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Those who laugh are in control: finding humour in lockdown

Toilet roll face
Charlie Chaplin once said, “to truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it.” In times of widespread fear and uncertainty it’s perhaps more crucial than ever to recognise and hold on to the lighter side of life. Dr Stephanie Schnurr, from the Centre for Applied Linguistics, shares some of the funnier things she has observed in daily life during the COVID-19 pandemic, and explains why humour is a powerful tool that can help us feel less worried, less alone, and more in control.

It may just be me, or my academic interest in humour, but I have a feeling that since the COVID-19 crisis, there’s more humour in the world. In fact, humour – in its different forms and guises – seems to be everywhere at the moment.

Before the lockdown, in my Pilates class, mostly made up of women over 70, there was a lot of laughter about all the “fuss” going on right now, and some jokes about who might be the first one to fall victim to the virus. They also jokingly pointed out the good side of this pandemic: “at least now the lads have started to wash their hands after they’ve been to the bathroom!”

Seeing these women make fun of the situation and laugh at the potential danger really took me by surprise — especially given they are all in the most vulnerable group for this crisis.

When talking to work colleagues (via email or video conferencing), there has similarly been ample evidence of people making fun of their new reality. They jokingly talk about their “official, government-authorised exercise period” while working from home during the lockdown — commenting that now at long last they have “time to do some spring cleaning”, “get the garden in top shape”, or even “do their nails”.

Those with children humorously talk about school closures by saying “now I have to actually talk to my children”, and they pass on some tongue-in-cheek advice about “how to survive working from home with young children”.

Speaking of children, the five-year-old daughter of one of my friends recently told her mum: “If you’re scared of the virus, just imagine it in its underpants, running around with everyone laughing at it”.

Just get your phone out and you will see the vast amounts of funny cartoons that people are circulating on social media, poking fun at different aspects of isolation and lockdown. Some joke that we are all going to balloon after lockdown, because of all the over-eating and lack of exercise. There’s even a video of a singing toilet roll to poke fun at the stockpiling and panic buying situation!

There are already lots of COVID-19 memes and ‘Twitter jokes’ about lockdown, social distancing, isolation, or even the virus itself. For example, I saw one that says that women created the coronavirus:

“Think about it lads…

  1. no sports
  2. all pubs shut
  3. 14 day quarantine (so you can finally get those odd jobs done)
  4. symptoms are flu-like…they know that’s your kryptonite,
  5. they even had the audacity to name it after a beer!”

These pockets of joy and laughter serve a deeper purpose during this difficult and uncertain time. Humour helps people to cope with a new and potentially terrifying situation — it helps people to say the unsayable, and also to talk about otherwise taboo topics (like death).

It also enables people to make meaning of their own experiences collaboratively; laughing together performs an important bonding function and brings people together in a difficult context such as this current crisis.

Making fun of the situation signals to ourselves and to others that it is not bad enough to be taken fully seriously, and can function as a way to distance oneself from what is going on.

In this way, humour helps people create a nicer and less scary reality – for example, one where the virus is not something to be scared of, but rather something to laugh about.

Those who laugh are in control. Laughing about something can make us feel superior to the fear, and in charge of the situation – rather than helpless victims who are scared and feel as if they are passively waiting for the virus to catch them.

Humour, especially irony and sarcasm, also functions as a valve and enables us to let off steam, which might be more vital than ever as we are all cooped up in isolation and quarantine.

Fundamentally, humour is a tool people can use to challenge, resist, and possibly change current thinking and talking about the virus. It constructs an alternative, better — and in the context of COVID-19 — a more habitable, less scary, reality.



15 April 2020


Dr Stephanie SchnurrDr Stephanie Schnurr is Associate Professor in the Centre for Applied Linguistics. Her work covers leadership, and the crucial role that communication plays in leadership performance.

She has researched and published widely on various aspects of leadership discourse, gender, the multiple functions and strategic uses of humour, politeness and impoliteness, identity construction, the role of culture, decision making and advice giving, and other aspects of workplace discourse in a range of professional and medical contexts.

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