Laughter is curious, because though it often means something funny or joyful, it can also signal discomfort, or awkwardness, or pain, or any number of other feelings, of course, but because it's primarily about humor and funniness, when it comes up in those other settings, it feels incongruous, and sometimes weird or rude in its own right.
My best example of this is from the religion class I took my freshman year, titled The Dead, Dying, and Mourning Self. One session, we had a mortician as a guest lecturer, talking about his experiences dealing with families after the death of loved ones. A student a couple of seats away from me started laughing. And, of course, as soon as he'd laughed even a little, it was so inappropriate, that it made him laugh more. And he was trying so so hard not to laugh, and that only made it worse. Well, we all could see what was going on there, and it was painful! Suddenly, though, the person sitting between me and him started laughing, too. The guest lecturer kept talking; he was, after all, talking about the many responses people have to emotionally fraught situations! And gradually, the hysterical laughter spread to about half the class. In retrospect, it's funny, but at the time, it was just horrifying. Both versions of it, though, involve laughing about it.
But, anyway, it's been a while since I was laughing because I was around someone someone doing something so inappropriate or appalling that my only possible response was laughter. I had that experience this week, though, and I didn't like it any more than I remembered.
But something struck me about it:
Because we normally laugh when something's funny, I worried that my uncomfortable laughter sounded approving. It was in response to a sort of macho play at status and showing off, and if the person doing it heard me laughing, I think he surely would have read it as a success. And furthermore, I was unhappy with myself for finding it funny ... until I realized that what was making me laugh was discomfort rather than humor. But because we take cues about our mood on the basis of our external reactions, that's a confusing moment.
And that made me think about when I was a teenager, and had those experiences ... and probably wasn't able to make that distinction to myself, much less to the people around me.
To my knowledge, nothing horrible came of that, but it made me really glad to know more about myself and human nature than I did then.