Humor - Friend or Foe When Crossing Borders?

Author: Joy Huang

Recently, the Wall Street Journal published a story about a Chinese American comedian, Joe Wang. Joe is a PhD chemist turned comic who enchanted audiences in the U.S. In fact, he is so good that he appeared on David Letterman's Tonight Show, Ellen DeGeneres' show and even performed at the White House. But when Joe went back to China and performed his signature routines in front of a Chinese audience, they did not find them, oddly, funny.

So are Joe's jokes funny or not? It depends. Take this one as an example: "Unlike in sports, the worse you are at parallel parking, the more people root for you." Anyone who's struggled and sweated with parallel parking in front of a crowd can probably relate to this and get a good laugh out of it. But if you live in China, or, any other place where parking rules are not that strictly observed, this is hardly funny because you can park anywhere you want! Humor is just that - intuitive, situational and culturally based. The moment you start to analyze a joke, it is no longer humorous.

A U.S. speaker once told a funny story in front of a large Russian audience to lighten up the mood. The translator, quick to his wit, said a one-liner to the audience and everyone laughed heartedly. How was he able to summarize the entire story to only one sentence and made everyone laugh? He didn't. Knowing that the audience would not understand the joke and trying his best to prevent this embarrassing moment, he simply said, "The speaker just told a funny story. Please laugh."

We always know that laughing is a great way to connect with people, but can we be sure that the people from a foreign culture can relate to our sense of humor? "If there is one thing that isn't funny in a foreign country, it is humor." Ours, that is. Humor is born out of a shared experience of something we lived through or felt deeply for. It bonds us together for a few short seconds under unexplainable mutual understanding. If we take that shared experience away, there is no humor to be understood. What is meant to be humorous can be confusing if not sometimes offensive to the recipient. Upon learning that the in-laws of an Indian colleague are coming to visit for three months, her co-workers expressed great shock and sympathy. "Three months?" "I’m so sorry to hear that!" A few vocal jokes later, she got a basket of "survival presents" including an assortment of hard liquors. Even as she understood where they came from, she could not but feel a bit frustrated. The fact is, it is very common for Indian parents to visit their children for months at a time, and she couldn't be happier that they did.

Think about Dilbert, the classic U.S. satire that pokes fun at the daily drudgery of working in an office. It is funny because you recognize the bosses, co-workers and the corporate culture in the U.S. What if you work in a culture where the boss commands absolute authority and the subordinate questions no decisions? Or, if on the other side of the spectrum, you live in a culture where being blunt and direct in providing feedback to your manager is not a concern or a "career-limiting move"? In some countries offices don't have water coolers and therefore, no water cooler culture. In these situations, you can imagine that much of the humor in Dilbert will be lost in translation.

So, is there any safe way to still be funny and not offensive when dealing with foreign cultures? One thing to do is to poke fun at yourself. Self-deprecating sense of humor can keep you out of trouble most of the time. Most cultures around the world find it charming if one can laugh at himself. Of course, always be aware that there are differences in customs if your jokes have anything to do with them.

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