If you’ve ever tried to stifle a laugh and had it backfire into an explosive snort in the middle of a class or meeting, you probably wondered, “What on earth just happened?” Or, maybe you’re a person who just laughs this way all the time—with your joy at a hilarious joke being expressed through an adorably pig-like sound or small snorts accenting your peals of vocal laughter—leaving you slightly self-conscious every time it happens.
Well, whatever the case, the first thing you should know is that you are not alone in your snort-laugh. According to Vanderbilt University’s Vocal Acoustics Laboratory, which recorded and cataloged more than a thousand “laughter bursts” in a range of styles (including “song-like” and “grunt-like”), it estimated that 25% of women and 33% of men make a “snort-like laugh.” These sort of “unvoiced” laughs (as opposed to the more traditional “voiced” ones of giggles and chuckles), were more common in men, and though the subjects were all American, Jo-Anne Bachorowski, who led the study, told New Scientist that the findings likely applied to other cultures and that, “I suspect that culture shapes the circumstances in which we use laughter rather than its features.”
The physics of laugh-snorting come down to the fact that you are exhaling air through your nose, rather than through your mouth. It’s much like snoring, with air being restricted in your nose or throat, creating something called “airflow turbulence.” When air moves in or out (in the case of an intense laugh, the air can do both quickly, almost like hyperventilating as the laugher tries to catch their breath), it causes vibrations in the surrounding tissues, resulting in the snort sound we know and love—or find horribly embarrassing.
A less scientific explanation comes from winemaker Lambrini, which broke down different types of laughter and what it revealed about the person creating it. A spokesperson for the organization said of those who make a laugh through their nose that, “This kind of super-suppressed laugh can be the result of years spent in a career where silence or keeping quiet is the norm, leading to a form of self-suffocation. This need for uber-controlled behavior from a jolly character with a strong sense of humor often leads to this kind of swift physical meltdown that includes bending forward or hiding the face plus lots of dabbing of the eyes.”
If you are someone who laugh-snorts and would rather not, you can focus on opening your mouth and redirecting the air that way, consciously closing off your nasal passage to ensure you have a “voiced” laugh instead of a snorting, unvoiced one.
But consciously changing your laugh can be much harder than it might seem. Laughter is often reflexive and changing it can be like trying to stop yourself from being ticklish or startled, or at the very least may result in some awkward attempts and the prevention of your enjoying the thing you were laughing at in the first place.
The best way to manage a snorting laugh may just be to embrace it. As Mary Poppins tells us, “Some people laugh through their noses…Some people laugh through their teeth.” And more than likely, a snort-laugh is one that will get others laughing, too.
And however you choose to laugh, remember that laughter is always healthy. For proof, see these 20 Health Benefits of Laughter—No Joke!
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