Sunday, September 25, 2011

Laughing Out Loud

This may make you laugh.

And laughs are something people like to share. When people communicate via social media, they type "laughs." In a sample of a million words of Twitter messages in ten different languages, I found that about 0.5% of all "words" are laughs – "haha", "LOL", or other ways of typing out a chuckle.

Do people everywhere laugh equally?

Not on your life.

In a study of ten Western languages (English, German, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese), I found enormous differences in the frequency of Twitter-laughs.

The Germans laugh least, with Twitter laughs making up under 0.1% of all words.

Other languages of Northern Europe were somewhat more prone to laughs than German. In increasing order of laugh frequency, Norwegian, French, Swedish, English, and Danish all came in below 0.4%.

And then there are the happy Latins. Laughing just more than the Danes, Portuguese has 0.5% laughs, and that's nothing compared to the Italians who Twitter-laugh in 0.9% of words. But the runaway laugh champions are Spanish speakers who type Twitter laughs for 1.4% of words.

The North-South pattern is noteworthy, but is broken by the Dutch, who out-laugh their neighbors like they're misplaced Latins, finishing way up at 0.8%.

The Dutch withstanding, the North-South trend is sharp and undeniable, as this color-coded map makes clear.

What's even funnier, the languages where people laugh more often, they also type longer laughs.

While three "ha"s are the preferred laugh in Spanish and Italian, they are not afraid to laugh longer. The five-ha laugh ("jajajajaja") is more common in Spanish than the two-ha laugh is in German. This graph shows how laugh length occurs in the five most-spoken languages. While Spanish runs away with the championship here at every length, notice that English is actually the runner-up for the two-ha laugh ("haha") with Italian strongly preferring a three-ha approach ("ahahah").

When you take into account the length as well as frequency of laughs, Spanish Twitter has 24 times more laughing than German, as measured in character count. This is not a subtle difference!

So, why is all of this happening? It's clear that more Twitter laughs come from the warmer and sunnier countries.This is true not only in Europe but also in the Americas, where the most speakers of English, Spanish, and Portuguese live. Statistically speaking, the laugh statistic is highly correlated with the latitude of the corresponding European capital (farther south: r=0.66), how sunny that city is (more sun: r=0.74), and inversely with the suicide rate (r=-0.74; this is the same if you choose the U.S., Mexico, and Brazil instead of the U.K., Spain, and Portugal).

So is it as simple as this: Warm, sunny weather makes people laugh a lot and immune to depression?

That may be part of it. But another idea to consider is that in Germany and Scandinavia Twitter is used comparatively more often for business and relatively less often for chatting. When one subtracts the social chat, then naturally less laughter remains.

Overall, it's not clear how much Twitter reflects life as a whole. Until we plant microphones everywhere and monitor all human communication, studies like this will just be suggestive of larger truths. But insofar as it goes, this study of Twitter laughs serves to support a lot of existing cultural stereotypes.