“The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.” – Mark Twain.
Laughter has the power to create common ground. If you want to break the ice when you first meet someone, cracking a joke seems appropriate. But, what if you make a joke and it’s met with a blank stare? Have you ever said something that you found funny, while the person on the receiving end looked confused or got offended?
A few years ago, I met a fellow European and our senses of humor could not be more opposite. Friends tell me they enjoy “my dry, witty sense of humor,” but the following story is an example of humor getting lost in translation. I was hanging out with this fellow European and joking around, but each time I would say anything sarcastic, he would interpret it completely seriously. Conversely, when he joked, I would simply not find it funny. I shared this story with a classmate the next day, and she said something like, “But, you’re both from Europe! Doesn’t that mean that you’ve shared similar experiences, and essentially the same humor?”
She couldn’t be more wrong. There has been extensive debate over the universal nature of humor. Humor isn’t as universally translatable as one might think. Sure, humor exists on a universal level (we all laugh for various reasons), but what’s defined as “funny” is highly subjective. How different cultures interpret humor greatly varies. Some people prefer a dry, witty sense of humor vs. others who enjoy slapstick humor. Jokes can get ‘lost in translation’ depending on perceptions and social norms as well. What seems clever wordplay to one person cannot be translated into another language. Interpretation doesn’t always result in a literal expression of the same message, and underlying cultural references can get lost, too.
It becomes even more dangerous when a joke alludes to a stereotype or touches sensitive subjects including religion or politics. In some countries, joking about a political leader is acceptable, while others highly frown upon that.
How can humor bridge (cultural) gaps then?
Should we avoid humor entirely for fear of offending others? Of course not. But, there are ways to go about it that are “safe” when you’re unsure how people may react.
Humor is a great way to reduce anxiety. It can be an effective way to resolve an interpersonal conflict in trying to bridge gaps and bring people closer. Often, we laugh at ourselves to reduce awkwardness or tension.
If you’re not sure how humor will translate in a different culture, it might be best to ask someone about it directly. When traveling, research a country’s social norms, and avoid anything controversial or “taboo,” even if it’s “normal” in your culture. However, though there are perceptions about certain cultures and how they deal with humor, this doesn’t necessarily translate to the personal level.
Aside from humor, it’s also important to look at body language. If someone is politely smiling at what you’re saying, but not laughing with you, perhaps it’s better to slow down with the jokes. Subtle humor could also get completely lost, and while some think they’re being clever, the other person could easily miss the joke entirely.
Have you ever had an awkward exchange as humor got lost in translation? How did you deal with it? How can humor bridge cultural gaps?