Shy people often avoid situations that force close contact with other people. They worry that something they say or do will make others laugh at them.
But some people worry much more than others about being the target of laughter. These people are frightened. They suffer from an emotional disorder called gelotophobia. That long name comes from the Greek language. The word Gelos means laugh, while phobos means fear.
Victor Rubio is an expert on human behavior at the Autonomous University of Madrid. He says people laugh at others for many different reasons. He says being laughed at causes a fear response in the victim. That fear leads the victim to avoid social situations.
Gelotophobia limits the way they lead their lives.
Victor Rubio was among researchers in a huge international study about laughter. The researchers wanted to understand the difference between normal shyness and true gelotophobia. Another goal was to measure the fear of being laughed at within different cultures.
A team from the University of Zurich led ninety-three researchers from many countries in search of answers. The researchers surveyed more than twenty-two thousand people. They used questions provided in forty-two languages. Their findings were reported in the scientific publication Humor.
Some of the people questioned said they felt unsure of themselves in social situations. But they hid their feelings. Others said they avoided social situations where they had been laughed at before. People also admitted to differing levels of fear that they themselves were the targets of other peoples laughter.
The researchers measured and compared all these reactions. Fear of being laughed at, being made fun of, is a common emotion. But the researchers learned that these feelings differed from nation to nation. For example, the study found that people in Turkmenistan and Cambodia are likely to hide insecure feelings when they are around others' laughter. But people in Iraq, Egypt and Jordan who feel they have been victims before may avoid such situations.
People in Finland were the least likely to believe that people laughing in their presence were making fun of them. Only eight and a half percent of Finns said they would -- compared to eighty percent of those questioned in Thailand.
What would you think? You can comment at voaspecialenglish.com.
And that's the VOA Special English Health Report.
(Adapted from a radio program broadcast 09Dec2009)