Culture Defines Humor

Learning to be Funny

If you have ever been around small children, you know sometimes they come up with the silliest jokes. Their jokes may not actually be that funny, but they are crazy. You know the children are trying so hard to match the humor they see around them.

With children, they are still exploring language and all of its nuances. However, they are also learning the societal expectations of what is considered funny. They see, much like we know, that humor is simply part of life. It is as much a part of life as other responses we have to events every day, such as anger and sadness.

In general, some have actually studied what makes things funny. Check out this TED Talk by Peter McGraw. He explains that humor can boil down to a simple concept anything that is benign (nonthreatening) AND a violation (something that does not feel right). This concept may sound weird, but check out the video and it will make more sense. Let me try to sum it up: something that doesn’t seem quite right maybe even something that seems morally wrong, but you are not connected enough with it to be offended. To give a quick example, think about what is funny in your perspective. One of the more popular ones would be cat videos. (Here is a 10 minute video of cat videos for your enjoyment.) Usually in cat videos, the cat is doing something that is out of the normal AND because it does not harm the cat people tend to see it as funny.

Cute asian baby girl laughing and playing peekaboo or hide and seek with fun

Let’s apply this culturally. Each culture has a set of values and things that it is more connected to. What your culture sees as normal may not be what others see as normal. What other cultures see as a priority in life, your culture may not. That means that what is a violation to some cultures may not be to others. Likewise, what may be benign to some cultures may not be to others. The reason many cultures laugh at cat videos is because cats act different than humans (violate the norm), and most see their reactions as harmless (benign circumstance). However, a culture that may worship cats, may have a harder time finding those same cat videos funny. Their offense to laughing at something they value is stronger than whatever is happening in the video.

We Learn Humor from Our Culture

Let’s look back at children. Many times, children understand that a joke includes something benign. However, they are not quite apt at being able to also make the situation a violation. This reason is why they struggle to complete a joke. They slowly learn by the responses of those around them what is appropriate and what is not. We can even see this as their level of telling jokes matures. Sometimes they make jokes that begin to violate, but are not benign and those around them will step in and correct. One of the statements in our home is, “We do not joke about death.” In our home death is a serious thing, and we do not make jokes where someone dies. We value life and the joke is no longer benign.

Since it is our culture that impacts and grows our responses to the world around us, it is culture that also impacts how we view things that are funny. We can also see how even within the same culture those values vary. Some people might find some jokes more humorous than others. Based on this definition of humor, we can also see how some jokes can be understood across cultures, while others are just confusing or offensive.

Another form of jokes is using puns. Puns are typically jokes or playful sayings that play on the meaning of the language or words within a language. They are highly reliant on culture, and specifically the language used in that culture. Puns do not translate across languages, literally because they cannot. If you have ever tried to learn another language, this becomes quickly apparent.

Feeling happy together. Father and daughter laughing out loud feeling happy together at the weekend

So, what does all of this mean for you?

Well, I hope that you are interacting with others who have different cultures than you or even learning about other cultures. It is good to know that if you try to connect along the lines of humor, there will definitely be cultural challenges you will face. Especially as this world does become more global, think of your children playing video games with others around the world or one day having business deals with those in other countries. It is simply respectful to take culture into account before trying to be funny.

Wanting to continue to expand your and your family’s worldviews? Check out our Nurturing Culture Explorers newsletter. In that newsletter we go over one way your family can grow in your perspectives of cultures around the world. The goal is to grow your worldview, and we include a cultural challenge to help you dig deeper into your cultural exploration!