‘Haha’ is a cover all, a verbal disguise, it’s probably the most common fig leaf since the Church took against marble penises in the 16th century.

Whether providing cover for your fear of a forward proposition on a dating app (‘You could come back to mine after Dishoom haha’), masking your shame about still listening to nu-metal (‘Still love listening to Freak on a Leash haha’) or making your political opinions more palatable (‘Quite into aspects of Tony Blair’s foreign policy haha’), haha is the internet’s go-to protective shield.

Haha and its close associates (lol,lololol and sometimes ‘bahahahaha’) are used widely across social media platforms and messaging applications. Its most pointed use in the experience of many Londoners will be through online dating chat:

Person 1: What are you up to tonight?

Person 2: Not that much just seeing friends it’s Sarah’s birthday think she wants to go to Spoons haha

Person 1: That sounds great maybe I could join you later on haha

While the ins and outs of online laughter have frequently been discussed, in recent years many have begun to seriously question the requirements of dating chat – something all the more notable with next year marking Tinder’s tenth anniversary.

Many will be well-versed in the demands of asking a series of questions and hoping that the answers go your way (‘Where abouts do you live? Have you been to Rowan’s in Finsbury Park before? We could go this weekend if you’re free haha’).

Many will have been asking these questions for many years and finding them skull-numbing in their formulaic reportativity. And ever-present throughout this all is the safety provided by a haha.

The pain of using hahas is made searingly real by the nameless narrator in Lauren Oyler’s 2021 debut novel Fake Accounts, who describes the experience of going through her boyfriend’s phone messages to gauge the extent of his flirtations with other women, only to be left deeply uninspired by the content:

‘Their exchanges were just wilted attempts at flirting, random instance of either Felix or the girl being reminded of the other by something; they consisted mainly of inert hahas and cools

In another part of the book, the narrator is speaking to a range of people on the dating app OkCupid, noting that ‘One man had a very bad hangover from partying until 8am that day lol!’ To another she responds ‘ha that’s great. want to get a drink this week?’

There is also a darker side to haha, too. Instagram accounts like @beam_me_up_softboi feature a range of posts from men who cushion flirtation or outright sexual harassment of women they have never met before with hahas and similar.

The idea of ‘leaving’ haha behind is a point increasingly made, with lol often shamed as a millennial hangover. While much is up to interpretation and the fig leaf variants endless, the realities behind why we use hahas suggests that they may not be something that can simply be abandoned.

The researcher and linguist Michelle McSweeney argues that haha’s use as a fig-leaf goes back to as early as when digital communications emerged in the 1980s with the bulletin board (with haha and lol both actively used).

McSweeney believes that haha’s use online is the embodiment of the linguistic term ‘hedging’, whereby a word or phrase is used to give a degree of ambiguity to a statement.

She describes how haha and co are ‘protective little thing[s] that [allow] you to plausibly say that you’re joking, just in case you’re not on the same page [as the person you’re writing to].’

In effect, the use of haha is to provide a sense of safety in the face of the intense vulnerability we can feel online, most noticeably in this period in which physical contact has been avoided by many for so long.

One haha user, Harriet, said that, beyond dating, she deployed haha frequently in work emails, as she and many of her female colleagues felt more intrepid and less firm on emails/ written conversations.

McSweeney concurs with Harriet’s view entirely, noting that among those hedging in their online discourse it is overwhelmingly the case that ‘you see more female-produced lols and hahas’.

Can we go beyond haha? In the world of online dating, at least, it appears that it could be possible.

McSweeney’s research suggests that, as a couple who meet online get to know each other, the use of haha and lol transitions from being something protective into something that serves as an acknowledgement of what one partner has found genuinely funny.

Moving beyond it entirely may not be a necessity, when the fig leaf is also something that helps us navigate a world in which it is increasingly hard to know if someone has properly understood what you have attempted to convey in writing. Haha.

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