Universal Humour: Fact or Fiction?

When you travel, you tend to see a lot of cultural differences between one place and the next. You don’t necessarily need to go to the other side of the world to experience it, sometimes cultures can vary drastically from town to town, or there may be a conglomeration of cultures right in your home city. In many cases, it would seem that fully understanding a foreign culture is impossible – you’re doomed to being lost in translation for the duration of your experience. However, it’s important to remember that no matter how different you and your neighbours, colleagues, or friends may be, there are some human attributes that are universal. But is humour one of them? Let’s take a look and see.

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“The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.” – Mark Twain

Laughter is often looked upon as the one great universal connection we have. Everyone, whether we’re from Asia, Europe, the Americas, or elsewhere, does it. In fact, there are many similarities between the ways we laugh. Sure, you’re bound to run into a few unique forms of laughter, but in general we tend to laugh in very similar ways. If laughter were a language, we’d all speak it fluently! Without a doubt, the laughing part of humour is universal, but what about the things that lead us up to that point? Are there universal themes in the things that make us laugh?

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“Only one in four jokes ever works, and I still can’t predict what people will laugh at.”– Steven Wright

Every year, ten or so jokes are voted as the funniest in the world. Although various scientific studies have been carried out to determine which jokes a wider range of individuals find funny and which they don’t, the concept of universal humour is still tough to prove. Projects like LaughLab aim to discover what humans consider funny by taking joke submissions from around the globe and allowing people to go on the site and rate each one. The results, however, seem to be a little skewed. When compiling information about the top ten nations which found the “funniest joke,” well, funny, all tend to be either English speaking or Western nations. This leaves us with the impression that Western humor varies little from country to country but may not be so popular in, say, the Middle East. Furthermore, scientific studies tend to be largely carried out by Westerners, making us wonder: where is the diversity when it comes to studying universal humour?

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“Most comedy is based on getting a laugh at somebody else’s expense.” – Ellen DeGeneres

If jokes aren’t universal, then perhaps what we find funny isn’t universal as well. Some suggest that what really unites the human race is not what we find funny, but what we find decidedly “unfunny.” This is, in fact, somewhat true. Gelotophobia, or the fear of being laughed at, can be found in any country in the world and all of us, to some degree, experience it personally. Researchers in Zurich did a 73-country study to determine how gelotophobia ranks in different parts of the world and the results were fascinating. For example, Americans ranked as the most likely to recover quickly from being laughed at while Japanese were just the opposite. Considering the unreserved versus reserved natures of American and Japanese cultures, this makes sense. The impact a culture has on humour is evident and perhaps this is one of the driving reasons behind why not everyone will laugh at the same jokes, however, what we find “unfunny” transcends barriers and should maybe be considered the true universal humour marker.

Many times, despite how much context we give humour, it simply does not translate. Taboo topics in certain countries may be considered funny in others and humour is too widely varied for there to be a similar vein that connects all of humanity. What’s my takeaway? Humour and laughter are important ways of making a connection with other people and cultures, but it might not always work. Perhaps the better solution is to study up on what is considered a faux pas in the country you’re visiting and what humor is A-OK, then you’ll be free to crack all the jokes you want!

What are some of your experiences with humor overseas? Do you think your humor would translate to other languages and cultures?