“Girls, if boys say something that’s not funny, you don’t have to laugh.”
This is some great advice from one of my favorite feminists. I’d like to extend this advice to young women in an academic or professional context and advise them not to laugh while giving a presentation (unless there’s something truly funny).
To avoid sounding like a total killjoy, let me first say that I am a very happy person who smiles and laughs quickly and easily, and I love hearing or making other people laugh as well. But what I’m talking about here is the laughter that is not in response to something funny – it’s the nervous giggle that is generated from anxiety. Most importantly, this is a laugh that is almost exclusive to girls and women.
As an instructor at a women’s college, I saw many young women give presentations in everything from a casual setting in class to a formal honors thesis presentation. No matter the level, quality, or competence of the person speaking, I noticed the nervous giggle was nearly ubiquitous, and it came to be my pet peeve.
She giggles when she can’t remember what she wants to say next. She giggles when she misspeaks, or sometimes for no apparent reason at all. She giggles when she accidentally skips ahead a slide in the presentation. In short, she’s usually laughing at herself for making mistakes.
This response is not all bad. It’s certainly better than getting angry, beating herself up for a little mistake. But it has a number of detrimental effects for the presenter:
1) Laughing at a mistake draws attention to the error. Usually this is something so minor or so understandable like skipping a slide and having to go back that the audience would not even be aware of it, and there’s no need to apologize or laugh in response.
2) Laughing appears unprofessional, like you’re not taking your work seriously.
3) The nervous giggle makes the presenter seem less confident and competent.
This final point is really the most important. On an individual level, you want to present yourself in the best possible light. You don’t want to do anything that will make you appear less confident in yourself or your research, or competent and understanding of your work, than you actually are. On a larger level, it is important to consider that this nervous laughter is a uniquely female trait. It is possible that the perception of a giggling young woman as less confident or competent compared to a male presenter could add to the stereotypes we are battling.
One important note is that I have rarely, if ever, noticed the nervous giggle in a presentation given by a female above an undergraduate level (graduate students, postdocs, faculty, other professionals). It is hard to say if there is a transition that occurs, where a woman matures or confidence is gained after college, or if the women I’ve met who go on to graduate school in science happen to be the women who never set out giggling or never got nervous. I do not believe the latter possibility to be true. I recently watched an amazing senior student give her honors thesis presentation. She is one of the most competent and confident students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching and clearly knows her field and her project very well; she is going on to an excellent graduate program and I am confident that she will be very successful as a scientific researcher. And yet, she giggled throughout her entire seminar.
If the possibility that there is a transition in young women from nervous giggling to confident presentations is true, what can instructors and mentors do to facilitate the transition (if only so I spend less time grinding my teeth down while listening to the presentations)?
1) Give direct feedback: “You clearly know your stuff, but your giggling makes you appear less confident. Try to be mindful of that in the future and cut back. Take a deep breath when you feel the urge to laugh.”
2) Give more opportunities for practice (and more feedback): anxiety contributes a large part to the nervous giggles, and more practice could make the talk smoother overall.
For more advice on minding your mannerisms: http://www.refinery29.com/2013/10/55289/uptalk-communication-mistakes#page-1