Journal of Nonverbal Behavior

, Volume 14, Issue 4, pp 209-236

First online:

Strangers meet: Laughter and nonverbal signs of interest in opposite-sex encounters

  • Karl GrammerAffiliated withForschungsstelle für Humanethologie in der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

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When strangers of the opposite-sex meet for the first time, both sexes are in a difficult situation. In this high risk situation, neither person knows the intention of the other, and consequently non-verbal signalling becomes the major channel for communication. Because of their higher biological risk, females should prefer less obvious tactics in order to communicate interest in a potential partner than males. The tactical task of signalling clearly, but at the same time subtly, is solved by the use of multifunctional or metacommunicative signals. In this study we propose that there is not one single meaning for any given signal. In laughing loudly we find a signal which consists of acoustical, mimical and postural information. In this way either laughter can send a “this is play” message or its meaning can be modified by other signals. Thus laughter, together with its accompanying body postures and movements, conveys messages that range from sexual solicitation to aversion, depending on which and how many different signals are present. Males seem to communicate interest for the female during laughter with only a few signals, such as body orientation and dominance signals. In contrast, females communicate interest via numerous signals which function as signals of bodily self-presentation and submission. In both sexes, a lack of interest is communicated through closed postures.