Intercultural Humour Survey
Farnham Castle Nov-Dec 2011
As part of an activity I use quite often in intercultural training, I get the group to look at some anecdotes/humorous stories to explain why they are/are not amusing and how they could confuse other people not familiar with the context. What I noticed surprised me, so I decided to put a theory to the test – that in fact, humour travels quite well across linguistic and national boundaries, and what is much more important is an understanding of the context of the anecdote.
For the survey I used the same anecdotes I use in the workshops I have given – these were originally supplied to me via twitter or LinkedIn in response to a request for jokes originally in a language other than English. These were then translated into English – for the full text of each anecdote, please see below. The survey itself was distributed in the same way – via twitter and LinkedIn websites. Due to the nature of my contacts through these websites, I would assume that a high proportion of the respondees have some connection to the intercultural training field, although I have no data to support or refute that argument.
66% of respondents identified themselves as being native English Speakers, leaving 34% as having English as a foreign language: the other native languages included Amharic, Shona, Kurdish, Polish, Russian as well as other European languages, and in terms of region of origin, Africa, Europe, North and South America and the Middle East are represented. In summary the respondents came from diverse backgrounds and experiences.
The joke that was considered funniest by the Native English speakers (NES) was the Panda joke (80%) – the only joke that was originally for a British audience, although the non native English Speakers (NNES) found the Two Rich Men joke the most amusing 72.7% – this also was originally in English, although came from a Singalese source, and features, what the correspondent who sent it to me calls “Chinglish” words (words combining Chinese and English).
At the other end of the scale the least popular jokes for both groups were the Gabrovian (Bulgarian) and the Kurdish (Kurdish). Both of these jokes play on local issues and require a little more effort to unravel – although the Gabrovian is essentially about a dishonest market trader and the Kurdish one is about sensitivity to richer and more powerful countries: both themes could be considered to be universal, however they are not immediately obvious. At least 50% of both NNES and NES considered all the other jokes amusing
If we remove the overall funniest (Panda) and the overall least funny (Gabrovian) the range of the remaining anecdotes is quite small, between 50% and 70% finding the jokes amusing in some degree.
Comments on the data
This is a very small, unscientific survey and wide ranging conclusions are difficult to draw. However I believe it is safe to make some comments on the results
There excessively wide differences between the national and/or language groups over which joke was funny or not – broadly speaking the differential between NES and NNES was relatively small, which suggests that the language of the anecdote did not play a huge role. It seems that the content of jokes from different countries and language traditions is much more important – the more local the reference, regardless of how universal the theme, the less likely people will find the story funny. The respondents showed that complete familiarity was unnecessary but a localised anecdote is not immediately accessible and is therefore less likely to get a positive response
We are frequently told that we should avoid jokes and funny anecdotes in intercultural situations for fear of giving offence or causing misunderstandings – this is stated as a fact covering all situations. It seems that we can back down from that universal position and reinstate humour as a tool in our communications kit; and if we combine it with country specific knowledge, a good understanding of intercultural communication and a good eye for sensitivity to local issues, humour can make a proud return.
1. One day Saint Peter hears the bell ringing at the heavenly gates. When he opens, he sees a man running away, Surprised, he shakes his head and closes the gate. He is only ten steps away when the bell rings again. He opens the gate and sees the same man running away again. He closes the door but not fully and watches from behind. After a few seconds the bell rings again. St. Peter pulls the gate open and grabs the man by the arm. When St. Peter asks the man what kind of game he is playing, the man responds, “I can’t help it, the doctors are trying to revive me.
2. Grandma says to her granddaughter: “When I was your age, I was already working.” Granddaughter replies: “When I am your age, I’ll still be working!”
3. A Gabrovian applies for a job at a butcher’s shop. The butcher asks, “How many grams in a kilogram?” – “850,” the Gabrovian answers. “Excellent. You start tomorrow”
4. The employee comes to his boss: - Boss, our files are too full of documents. Perhaps we could dismiss those folders with documents which are older than twenty years? — Great idea!!! But before it, you have to make a copy of everything.
5. A Kurdish man is on a plane, he is sitting next to a Japanese business man. The Kurdish man hears a beep and sees the Japanese man whisper something into the cuff of his jacket. Thinking it’s a little unusual he goes back to reading his paper. A few minutes later again the man hears a beep and again the Japanese man murmers into the cuff of his shirt. The Kurdish man asks him what he is doing. To this the Japanese man explains that Japan is the centre of cutting edge technology. He works for a large international corporation and his company has just started to use mobile phones that are built into cufflinks in their shirts. The Kurdish man says “ah yes, we too in Kurdistan are very interested in technical innovation” and he begins to turn away. As he turns the Kurdish man jumps up shakes a little and sits back down in his seat. The Japanese man asks “are you ok” the Kurdish man replies “oh no its nothing, I just got an SMS”
6. A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons. ‘Why?’ asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder. ‘Well, I’m a panda,’ he says, at the door. ‘Look it up.’ The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. ‘Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.’
7. Two rich men were talking over coffee one day and one of them said to the other one “Hey I tell you my driver is really stupid… you don’t believe? Let me show you.” and he called his driver Ah Beng over and said “Ah Beng, here is a 10 dollar note, go to the car showroom and buy me a Mercedes.” to which Ah Beng replied, “Yes Sir! right away!” and rushed off to the showroom. The rich man turned to his friend and said, “See, I told you he was stupid.” The other rich man said, “That’s nothing, you want to see stupid, I will show you stupid.” and he called his driver, Ali. “Ali, go home now and check to see if I’m at home.” to which Ali said, “Yes Sir, right away Sir.” and ran home. “See what I told you? He doesn’t even have enough brains to know that I cannot be at home if I am here.” Later on, the two drivers met on the road. Ah Beng said to Ali, “Eh, you know my boss is sooo stupid. He gave me 10 dollars and ask me to go to the car showroom and buy him a Mercedes….. Doesn’t he know that today is Sunday lah, the showroom is closed!” Ali replied, “You think he is stupid ah? My boss lagi worse, he asked me to go home to check if he is at home…. He got hand phone what, can just call up to check lah!!!!”