Can you recall a moment when a good joke helped you break the ice with a new client, despite a language barrier? Or when a witty one-liner defused the tension during negotiations with a tough partner from overseas? Or when a shared sense of humour turned a foreigner into a friend?
Or, on the other hand, can you remember an instance when a joke happened to be so culturally inappropriate that it caused an eternal minute of awkward silence? Or irrevocably damaged the relationship with a prospective international partner? Or unintentionally offended someone?
As you’ve probably guessed, in this article we will be talking about humour – what it is, why people use it, what makes a comment funny and, most importantly, why making jokes in cross-cultural interactions is a risky endeavour.
Let’s start with a little theory:
What is humour?
At first glance it seems obvious: humour is the ability to perceive and convey amusing meaning in speech and action. Yet, it’s much more complex than that.
The founder of psychoanalysis, S. Freud (1928) was one of the first to suggest that humour protects one’s nervous system by alleviating negative effects of distress, fear and anxiety. His proponents further elaborated on the idea: humour allows people to face their inner fears in an amusing and therefore less scary way
(Martin & Ford, 2018).
Although this description is not exhaustive, it’s hard to deny that humour is both entertainment and a defence mechanism in stressful or awkward situations.
Humour in communication: why do people use humour?
Now that it’s clear what sense of humour means to the individual, let’s look at the core functions of humour in social communication.
- Establishing social cohesion, feeling of collegiality and solidarity. Simple psychology: we are attracted to those who bring us positive emotions and those who are alike. Shared sense of humour, smiles and laughter are a powerful tool: they make strangers appear less strange and help build a strong connection.
- Humour relieves pressure during such undesirable events as arguments, disagreements, requests, or demands. It “cushions” thorny subjects in conversations and reduces embarrassment. Generally, it’s used as a face-saving strategy.
- Inclusion and exclusion from social groups. A shared style of humour reinforces bonds and marks out members’ belonging to a group. At the same time, a different style alienates people (Hua, 2014).
Where do some jokes fall flat?
A joke isn’t just an amusing verbal expression. It involves a complex comprehension process.
There are 7 communicative levels in which an attempt at humour may fail:
- Failure to process the language and recognize the surface meaning.
- Failure to understand the meaning of words.
- Failure to understand the pragmatics of speech, the purpose (e.g. irony).
- Failure to identify the joke, either missing it or assuming a joke where there is none.
- Failure to understand the incongruity of the joke.
- Failure to appraise the joke.
- Failure to adopt the humorous mode and join in the joke’s intent. (Bell and Attardo, 2010)
Now, why do some jokes succeed and build connection, whereas some fail and create distance between people?
Humour and culture
Humour is present across all cultures on the globe. No matter where someone is from, we all experience similar feelings and emotions, and are able to express them through humour.
However, the way people perceive and produce humour is what makes the difference. And it is determined, to a great extent, by their cultural backgrounds.
But before we try to explain where this difference stems from, we need to understand what humour actually consists of.
What makes a phrase humorous?
Warren & McGraw (2015, 2016) define humour as a social act that “benignly” violates norms.
These norms can be for instance, communicative, logic, linguistic, or social. A humorous utterance attracts attention and evokes positive response because it’s novel, startling and unpredictable, unlike ordinary speech. It may take various forms such as illogicalities, paradoxes, surprises, and sarcasm.
A simple example of a linguistic norm violation.
A pun, or a wordplay: words, similar in sound but different in meaning are intentionally combined in a sentence to create a joke. It’s very common in the English language.
Here comes an obstacle: to understand an English pun, the listener must have sufficient competence and flexibility in the language.
Humour is a social experience. A joke doesn’t exist on its own. Such norm violations are considered amusing, only if they are acceptable among the people in the given situation.
For a message to become a ‘joke’, the receiver must understand it and appraise it as appropriate.
Note, that the perception is always individual and subjective. This explains why people produce and react to humour so drastically different across cultures.
To make it clearer, put aside the geo-political concept of ‘culture’ and look at its more accessible variations like ‘corporate culture’ and ‘family culture’.
It’s unlikely that you joke in the same way with your boss as with your family and friends.
The same happens in cross-cultural interaction.
In our daily lives, we constantly switch our identities and adjust behaviours according to the social groups we belong to. We do it intuitively in the familiar settings.
When interacting cross-culturally, the shift doesn’t happen that easily and unconsciously, since we face unfamiliar worldviews, norms, beliefs, and language barriers.
At this point, our habitual humour meets an obstacle.
Example – The concept of Face in the Chinese culture
One of the core social norms in the Chinese culture (and a number of other Asian cultures) is face-saving behavior. This is a critical part of the Chinese etiquette, which can be roughly compared to the Western concepts of dignity or ego. It implies avoiding embarrassment (one’s own and that of others), protecting each other’s reputation, and demonstrating honour.
Disrespectful actions make a person “lose face”, and they may range from direct feedback, to personal comments, to jokes, to a slightly raised voice, to openly negative words. The more rude and straightforward the action, the more devastating effect on the person’s “face” it has.
Now, compare it to the Australian culture in which the most commonplace forms of humour are sarcasm, self-deprecation and the mocking of others. The complete opposite to the Chinese norms of communication. Sarcastic remarks towards one another, which some Australians bandy around as easily as compliments, would be a nightmare for face-saving cultures.
In this article, we’ve discussed the role of humour in social interactions, how it’s produced and why it’s perceived differently across cultures. The outcomes can be summed up with a quote:
“humour is a universal human activity that most people experience many times over the course of a typical day and in all sorts of social contexts. At the same time, there are obviously important cultural influences on the way humour is used and the situations that are considered appropriate for laughter”.
(Martin & Ford, 2018, p. 30)
Author: Amina Rakhmankulova
Bell, N. Attardo, S. (2010). Failed humour: Issues in non-native speakers’ appreciation and understanding of humour. Intercultural Pragmatics, 7 (3), 423-447.
Freud, S. (1928). humour. Int. J. Psychoanal. 9, 1–6.
Hua, Z. (2014). Exploring intercultural communication: Language in action. 38-39
Martin, R. A., and Ford, T. (2018). The Psychology of humour: An Integrative Approach. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Academic Press.
Rogerson-Revell, P. (2007). Humour in business: A double-edged sword: A study of humour and style shifting in intercultural business meetings. Journal of Pragmatics, 39(1), 4-28.
Warren, C., & McGraw, A. P. (2015). Opinion: What makes things humorous. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112, 7105–7106.
Warren, C., & McGraw, A. P. (2016). Differentiating what is humorous from what is not. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 110, 407–430.