What Do You Mean “Haha”?

A four-character laugh that doesn’t stand for laughter

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

“Haha too late I see”

“I’m just going to stay in tonight haha”

“Haha ok I will too”

“You beat me to it haha”

“I’m so excited for our camping trip haha”

How do you read those? Do you literally say “ha-ha” in your head? Do you picture the person laughing?

Read through some of your recent texts. Is that four-character laugh ever used to indicate humour? Now read them out loud. Does a laugh ever belong in its place?

After looking through my own messages, I found the answer is almost always no.

So if the universal text equivalent of laughter isn’t being used to indicate…well, laughter, what’s it being used for? And how did it end up that way?

Not quite speech, not quite writing

First off, I think it’s important to pin down where texting lives on the spectrum of communication. According to Dr Caroline Tagg, who holds a Phd in the subject (seriously): “Text messaging is far closer to speech than formal writing. It is in a way a new form of communication between the two.”

That sounds right to me. It exists in a sort of no-man’s-land, where casual face-to-face conversations are converted into written word with all the slang, abbreviation and unnecessary words that go along with it. So you end with little not-quite-words like “hmm”, “i dunno” and “haha”, which don’t generally appear in formal writing. Instead, they serve as proxies for body language, verbal cues and other little bits of face-to-face conversation that aren’t accessible within the brief, alphanumeric confines of texting.

That explains why those not-quite-words show up, but not how we get from “haha” as laughter to “haha” as…something else?

What do you mean, “haha”?

Looking through my own messages, it certainly doesn’t mean you’re laughing. Haha-ers are employing it unconsciously, inserting it into any sentence that has the potential to be misunderstood as terse or rude. Rarely will it change the meaning of the sentence, but it often changes the tone, softening it and appearing more agreeable.

It’s a sort of back-step, a cop-out, a way of signifying that you’re not committed to your words. It reduces firmness and attempts to sponge up any awkwardness that might leak through the cracks of misunderstanding. It’s a crutch on which one can lean to allay the responsibility of meaning exactly what was said.

If we were to try and translate it back into face-to-face conversation, I think it would most often appear as indecisiveness, non-committment, hesitation. Sometimes, those are useful things to communicate. More commonly, however, they display a lack of certitude that reflects poorly on the speaker.

Don’t take this the wrong way…

There’s no grand conspiracy as to how this happened. It’s a simple, useful way to ensure a quick response doesn’t make you sound like a detached asshole. It doesn’t require you to re-word your sentence, or the message you’re trying to communicate, it’s simply a sticker you attach before sending that says “all in good fun, don’t misunderstand me, we’re all friends here, don’t mean to offend, haha ” And because it’s practical, it caught on.

So what’s the cure?

Stop using it. Stop using it in texts. Stop using it in emails. If you’re saying something, you should be able to stand behind it firmly, or communicate it better to avoid a misunderstanding. That doesn’t mean you need to stop being witty. It just means you need to start doing it better.

As more and more communication happens online instead of in-person, the way we convert our personalities into digital mediums becomes increasingly important. It’s worth thinking about what your words say about you. You’re more clever than “haha”.

Disagree with anything I’ve said? Let me know, I’m interested to hear other takes on it.

Bryce Kirk
brycekirk.com