When we first start speaking a language different from our own, one of the first obstacles that comes our way is the difficulty in being funny.

We’ve all been there: in an attempt to appear nice and funny to our foreign interlocutor, we make a joke which receives no reply whatsoever, not even a fake smile. While we’re trying to hide our frustration and embarrassment, thousands of questions start running through our minds: What’s happening? Why is he/she not laughing? Did I offend him/her? Am I not funny anymore? Who am I?!

In those moments, before starting to doubt ourselves, we should take note of the following bold statement: it might not be our fault.

We are still ourselves, still brilliantly funny and we did not lose our sense of humour and charisma. Or did we? And if the fault is not ours, whose is it?

Our personal identity is not to blame, but our cultural identity is!

Many studies have shown that humour is inextricably related to culture. Every culture has its own form of humour and different ways to express and understand it. It is no coincidence that humour is considered the most difficult thing to translate across languages.

The Italian language for example can somehow be humorous within. Using a peculiar tone, inflection or regional accent in saying something can crack Italian people up. This however would have no effect whatsoever if applied to English per say.

On the other hand, speaking the same language is no guarantee of equivalent sense of humour. If we were to ask an American person what he\she thinks about British humour, he\she would say it is too dry, sarcastic and it doesn’t have enough punchlines. British people instead would say that the American humour is not subtle enough.

If the sense of humour of two countries speaking the same language can be so different, imagine the barriers that rise between countries with different languages.

In 2001 an interesting experiment called “LaughLab” was carried out in the UK by the psychologist Richard Wiseman with the support of the British Science Association. People from all over the world submitted jokes and everyone evaluated jokes from different cultures other than their own. In this way it was possible to underline the differences in the sense of humour of different cultures.

“People from The Republic of Ireland, the UK, Australia and New Zealand expressed a strong preference for jokes involving word plays, such as:

Patient: Doctor, I’ve got a strawberry stuck up my bum.

Doctor: I’ve got some cream for that.

Americans and Canadians much preferred gags where there was a sense of superiority – either because a person looked stupid, or was made to look stupid by another person, such as:

Q: How many Polacks does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Three – one to hold the bulb and two to turn the ladder.”

It is interesting to note that even stereotypes, a worldwide popular source for jokes, are not the same in different countries. The joke about Polacks might not be considered as funny in other countries as in USA, least of all in Poland.

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We can now understand why, when we try to be funny in a language which is still not very familiar to us — because we are not yet accustomed to the culture — the result can be embarrassing, frustrating or even catastrophic.

For example, when Russian sarcastic humour meets Italian light-hearted and diplomatic humour, the result is never too successful.

Picture this: in a class full of Italian students there is a new Russian student who has just moved to Italy. One of the Italian girls, eager to be friendly to the newly arrived, while smiling light-heartedly and gesticulating energetically, asks: “Is it true that you eat babies in Russia?” The whole class starts laughing. The Russian student looks at the girl and answers with the most serious and imperturbable of faces: “Yes.”

Suddenly there is silence and the girl’s face became serious, surprised, preoccupied even. The only person still laughing is the Russian teacher.

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   In conclusion, the good news is that, when these awkward moments occur – and they often occur while speaking with people from different countries – we can take a breath and try not to lose our self-esteem right away.

The “bad” news it that we still have a long, winding and tortuous road ahead of us in learning a new language and interiorising the culture it roots from. But once we get the hang of it, it is absolutely worth it!

By Adelina Zarnescu




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