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Is ‘Laughter Padding’ Undermining You at Work? Here’s How to Break the Habit

Laughter padding is a common tic that you’ve probably never thought about before – but it could be undermining you. We asked experts how to tackle it.


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Ever noticed yourself forcing a smile as you talk, or bookending statements with light chuckles? That’s laughter padding. And it’s one of those things that, once you know about it, it’s impossible to un-notice. 

Conscious development coach Ariel Niu gives a great example of how this undermines how you come across. “Using laughter as a scapegoat is energy intensive,” she says in the caption of one TikTok post. “[It’s] why so many of us are drained after social interactions. Learn to be present, grounded and honest in expression. Your words will leave a deeper impact and genuine laughs will feel much more satisfying.”

You might find yourself laughter padding to soften what you say and make it sound ‘nicer’ or more ‘gentle’. When you use laughter padding sporadically, it’s not a big worry, but if it’s becoming a tic you find yourself doing in all situations, it’s worth taking a look at how it’s impacting the way you come across – especially when it comes to the world of work, where you’ll often need to be assertive. 

But before we get into the impact of laughter padding, let’s explore why it happens.  Hilde van den Bulck, head of the department of communication at Drexel University in Philadelphia, tells Stylist that it can be a physical reaction to a perceived risk. 

“Evolutionary psychology looks at human behaviours as a reflection of how human ancestors survived and reproduced,” she says. “They see this kind of laughter padding as related to the instinctive gasp for air (to supply oxygen to the muscles), taking a deep breath to prepare for an emergency, to face danger. That ‘danger’ in this case is the possible repercussions of speaking up, telling someone off or speaking in a difficult circumstance.”

There’s also the more obvious social psychology element – we’re trying to ‘soften the blow’ of our words and make it easier to say things that might otherwise feel uncomfortable. Saying ‘no’, for example, or giving criticism are times you might be tempted to laughter pad. 

The issue is that this can create a subtle mixed message and undermine your point. Doing the classic ‘ha ha, I’m actually not a fan of that, ha ha’ or ‘no, haha!’ makes it easier for people not to take your opinion or needs seriously. You’re portraying your words as a joke, so it’s likely people will treat them as such. 

“It is when you overcompensate a stern message with all too friendly non-verbal behaviour (laughing it off entirely) that you create more conflict and problems because of the confusing messages,” notes van den Bulck. 

Laughter padding may make you sound less confident as it prohibits you from having a delivery that is concise, firm and well received

You’re also more likely to laughter pad if you aren’t entirely confident speaking up. “We engage in laughter padding as a way of diversion, giving ourselves more time to process our thoughts, or to make ourselves seem more relatable in conversation,” says career coach Ariel Lopez. “It is important to note that many people struggle with anxiety and have a fear of public speaking: 77% of the US population has some level of anxiety in regards to public speaking and over 15 million people worldwide suffer from glossophobia (fear of speaking in public). I think it’s a hard tendency to avoid as it happens subconsciously and it takes a real effort to practise your communication skills.”

The problem is that laughter padding loudly declares your lack of confidence to the world. Sure, it softens what you’re saying, but sometimes your words don’t need to be softened. Particularly in the workplace, you’ll often want what you say to be firm and respected. 

Much like peppering your speech with ‘um’ and ‘like’, laughter padding is a small thing that can have a subtle but sizeable impact on how your words are received. 

Lopez notes: “Laughter padding may make you sound less confident as it prohibits you from having a delivery that is concise, firm and well received. Your audience may perceive that you are either unprepared, nervous, or aren’t as knowledgeable on the topic as you actually are.”

Once you become aware of a laughter padding habit, you may want to break it. How do you do that? 

Preparation for tricky conversations could be key. “When you have to bring bad news or be stern, it can help to prepare what you are going to say so you feel more self-assured and to make sure you can give the news in a context that will save the other person’s face so they may not feel a need to retaliate,” van den Bulck tells us. 

The same goes for speeches, interviews or other situations where you want to come across as confident, assured and firm. Rehearsing a little and getting comfortable delivering statements without laughter padding can help make the real thing easier. 

Lopez recommends slowing things down. “You can break the habit of laughter padding by taking your time when speaking, not rushing to answer or participate in a discussion until you are ready,” she says. “It is also helpful before meetings or presentations to carefully write out your thoughts and anticipate any pauses you may need to take. While in the midst of a conversation, it’s also OK to ask for a moment to process your thinking so you’re able to communicate in a more clear manner.” 

But don’t beat yourself up if you slip back into laughter padding. As van den Bulck notes, this is a reflex action, not a conscious decision, so it might still spill out even when you’re conscious of ditching the laughter padding action. 

“Non-verbal communication is almost harder to control than verbal communication. Research shows that non-verbal behaviour is almost involuntary,” she explains. “The padding laughter is part of those involuntary forms of communication that are almost like a reflex.”

Really, we shouldn’t stress too much about it. Laughter padding comes from a desire to be nice and likeable – a perfectly natural human want. 

“It’s OK to be nice and firm,” Lopez adds. “There’s duality that exists that isn’t talked about enough. You don’t have to have a harsh tone or presence to get your point across, the firmness should be in the language that you are communicating.”

And if we want to get into the wider society issue, perhaps what we should really be focusing on is dismantling the work culture that tone-polices women and demands an impossibly perfect balance struck between firm, strong and non-threatening. 

“If the reason for laughter padding is the immediate context (again, a work situation that is hierarchical or where, for example, women are not treated as equals) there is more a need for structural change,” says van den Bulck. “[There’s a need] for a different vibe, for a less hierarchical and more inclusive context so people do not have to feel that they are not ‘allowed’ to speak their mind without padding their opinion or statement with laughter.

“The fact that women seem to show more laughter padding behaviour than men goes back to long-standing gender inequalities where it is more ‘dangerous’ for women to speak up and where it is more expected from women to be sensitive to moods while men, traditionally too often in hierarchically higher positions, are allowed to be more brutal and direct without worrying about the personal consequences. From that perspective, it is not so much up to the women to change, as being considerate is hardly a bad thing.”

Main image: Getty; Stylist

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This post originally appeared on Stylist and was published April 27, 2023. This article is republished here with permission.

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