Humor Across Cultures
Though the various forms of verbal humor are not limited to any one country or nationality, many people are more or less noted for certain types. Americans are said to be fond of hyperbole, an intentional exaggeration for emphasis or humorous effect. “It’s raining cats and dogs,” is an example. Also, “I nearly died laughing.”
“I tried a thousand times.” Such statements, of course, are not literally true and this is usually understood by the listener.
The British are noted for dry humor, that is, when the speaker says something funny in a casual way and with a straight face. The British are fond also of the understatement. In this regard, the book Humour in Memoriam by George Mikes says: “Understatement is not simply a manner of making jokes; in England it is also a way of life. Other people use understatement too – the English do not own the copyright. A cartoon in the New Yorker showed two men on the flying trapeze and one has just missed the other’s hand, ninety feet up in the air. The man who made the somewhat absentminded mistake said: ‘Ooop, sorry.’ Surely, an understatement and an American understatement at that. But in other countries understatement is casual, incidental; in England it flows from the national character; it is in the air. It is, more often than not, not even meant as a joke.’
As an example of understatement, George Mikes relates the following: He says that a steamer was crossing the English Channel. “Only another man and myself were on deck and a violent storm was raging. A tremendous gale was lashing mountainous seas. We huddled there for a while, without uttering one single word. Suddenly a fearful gust blew the other chap overboard. His head emerged just once from the water below me. He looked at me calmly and remarked somewhat casually: ‘Rather windy, isn’t it?’ ”
The Irish brand of humor has its own appeal. Stephen Leacock gives an example in his book Humour: “An order has been made that ‘the last carriage shall not be attached to railway trains, as it is always subject to unpleasant shocks and oscillation.’ ” Also: “Don’t come down the ladder, Pat, because I have taken it away.”
The same writer gives the following example of Scottish humor, which, reputedly, is sometimes grim: “A Scotchman’s wife was taken ill and, seemingly, died. At her funeral as the coffin was being carried through the churchyard gate, the pall-bearers accidentally bumped it against a gatepost. The shock resuscitated the woman. She was taken from the coffin and survived for many years. Then she was taken ill, and, this time, really died. At the funeral, as the coffin approached the churchyard gates, the bereaved husband said to the pall-bearers, ‘Steady, lads, steady; dinna bump her.’ “
Spanish humor often illustrates the propensity for self-depreciation. A cartoon in the magazine El Triunfo shows two men conversing. One says: “Culture is now the fashion. We have a Ministry of Education . . . a Ministry of Culture . . . and a Cultural Adviser to the President.” The other replies: “Excellent! Now all we need are schools.” To laugh at one’s own weaknesses is an important aspect of humor.
Since Germans love to eat, jokes about this go over well. For example, a traveling overseer of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany illustrated the need to partake regularly of spiritual food by our need to partake regularly of literal food. “Many of us eat three times a day,” he said. “Of course, there are some who eat once a
day – from morning to evening.” The German audiences all responded with a big laugh, but when the same illustration was told at an assembly of another language group, it fell completely flat.
Big words are the joy of the Nigerian, especially when using Pidgin English. A speaker is certain to gain an enthusiastic response if his speech is laced with nice, long words. Among the Yorubas, quarrels are sometimes won or lost depending on which of the combatants can exhaust the opponent’s ability to use big words.