Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. You Have to “Get” the Joke

 

I was talking to a missionary about to go to northern China and work with a minority Muslim people group there. I asked him, “So what is your cultural learning plan?” He replied, “I don’t have one. What is a cultural learning plan?”

So, I explained to him that you need to find out what makes people laugh, what makes them cry, what makes their spirits soar in their own culture and where people get their names from. Names are important but a subject for a different post. People of all cultures make the mistake thinking that, broadly speaking, people are motivated broadly by the same thing. That is not true but there is just enough evidence to make it seem true.

Here is a classic, “The Svan is sitting on a rock watching his sheep. I noticed that he was holding an empty Coke bottle and he kept twisting off the cap looking at it and then putting back on. I walked up to him and said, “Why do you keep taking that cap off and putting it back on my friendly Svan.” He turned to me and grinned, “I want to win!” I could not understand so he showed me the cap and it said right there “Try again.”

In Georgia, Svan jokes are often a version of what we call “dumb blonde” jokes in America and there is enough there to laugh at even if you don’t have a clue what a Svan is. What was interesting to me was not that Georgians laughed at “dumb Svan” jokes but that they make them out of fear. People are afraid of the Svans who are a mountain people with their own language and they live so remotely that they feel free to take a buffet approach to civilization’s laws about smuggling, honor killing, thievery, and murder. People laugh at Svans but the laughter is a little nervous.

On my very first mission trip, I went to the country of Romania and a Romanian expat told me one real Romanian joke, here is how it went, in the version I know, “A Hungarian is riding his horse through Romania. He comes to a large town and visits the blacksmith to shoe his horse, buys a candle from the candlemaker, and buys some beer from the innkeep. He then rides high up to a mountain overlooking the town and surveys the farmland, the villages and the town he could see. He takes a deep breath and declares, “I claim this vast and empty land for all Hungarians!”

When I told that joke to group of Romanian teens, one girl laughed so hard she fell down and had tears running out of her eyes. She begged me to tell it again and again. The joke is a very old and very common one in Romania, at least that is what I was told, but to have an American tell it; now that was funny!

Nearly all Americans I tell that joke to, even the ones that kind of laugh, don’t understand why it is funny. If you know at least a little Romanian, Hungarian, and Transylvanian history you start to understand why it might be funny but that is not enough to quite get it.

Another interesting thing is the comic character and one kind of comic character I always liked to see was the American. I have seen comic American characters from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Russia, Romania, and China. In most cases, the American character is weak and unmanly if a man, and vain and materialistic if a woman, always incompetent at traditional female work and, of course, sexually promiscuous. If it is an African-American they are what we would call a racist stereotype at best and sometimes the characterization is so racist it is deeply shocking, or was to me at least.

The comic storyline is nearly always the same that Americans may be rich but the price they pay for that wealth is terrible. As one Georgian friend told me, “I think Americans are so rich they are no longer quite human.” Americans are often quite famous in other parts of the world for cursing, a lot. In fact, in Georgia, where many Americans are connected with our military, Georgians will fake speak English but just stringing together American curse words. In fact, all “fake speak” English I have heard overseas incorporates American curse words. One place we do not have a trade deficit is in foul language, we manage to spread that everywhere while we import very little cursing from overseas. A big win for America.

One category of humor I always liked was “Heracles in a Dress” humor. I watched a documentary about Pompeii and the excavations there and I learned from the historians Romans loved humor of reversed expectations and so to show Heracles in a dress was really funny to them. Georgians really love, like Romans, “Heracles in a Dress” humor. They had a long-running sitcom about a married couple where the wife was a cross-dressing man pretending to be a woman. In the world of the sitcom, this cross-dressing man was really a woman but everyone watching it knew she was a man, hence the comedy. Her husband was a real straight Georgian everyman and the “wife” was a kind of criminally minded Lucy. Heracles in a dress, indeed.

Georgians have long had a returning character on their comedy show series of a woman of immense strength and masculine attitudes that always dates little mousy men. By the end of the sketch, the woman has usually destroyed the whole set with her great strength. A literal Heracles in a dress.

Gay men feature prominently in Georgian humor and few comedy shows or events ever finish without one or two sketches focused entirely on gay men. Never will you see a lesbian, by the way. Lesbians don’t exist in any Georgian entertainment but gay men are comic gold. Georgians will laugh at the antics of gay men all day and even talk of meeting one and how funny it would be one to have around.

That is, until people stand up for the human rights of homosexual people, then violence breaks out and foreigners are run down and beat up and activists must flee for their lives. One needs to be careful when you make someone else’s joke come to life.

Humor has long been one of the ways that groups know who is in the group and who is out of the group. I don’t think you can really understand someone until you know what makes them laugh and you can laugh at the joke. From the best of humanity to the darkest recesses of our souls, humor reveals it all. To really understand someone, you also have to be able to get the joke.

There are 32 comments.

  1. The Reticulator Member

    Would this also apply to those who want to be missionaries to the left? 

    • #1
    • July 5, 2018, at 10:11 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  2. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Good post, with thoughtful insights and interesting illustrations. 

    Brian Wolf: Americans are often quite famous in other parts of the world for cursing, a lot. In fact in Georgia where many Americans are connected with our military Georgians will fake speak English but just stringing together American curse words.

    My mom told me that she met a Thai woman who had learned her English from American military. Her language was beyond inappropriate for polite company. That is a sad part of our military culture, and the fact that obscene and profane language is what other countries see of Americans makes it worse. 

    • #2
    • July 5, 2018, at 10:20 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  3. Phil Turmel Coolidge

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Would this also apply to those who want to be missionaries to the left?

    No, nothing to learn. The left is entirely humorless.

    • #3
    • July 5, 2018, at 10:41 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  4. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Would this also apply to those who want to be missionaries to the left?

    In my experience, yes. Although you have to be comfortable around humor that also gores your own sacred cows.

    • #4
    • July 5, 2018, at 11:05 AM PDT
    • 10 likes
  5. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Would this also apply to those who want to be missionaries to the left?

    It certainly would and it would reveal a great deal about their darker character traits I would suspect.

    • #5
    • July 5, 2018, at 11:09 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  6. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf

    sawatdeeka (View Comment):

    Good post, with thoughtful insights and interesting illustrations.

    Brian Wolf: Americans are often quite famous in other parts of the world for cursing, a lot. In fact in Georgia where many Americans are connected with our military Georgians will fake speak English but just stringing together American curse words.

    My mom told me that she met a Thai woman who had learned her English from American military. Her language was beyond inappropriate for polite company. That is a sad part of our military culture, and the fact that obscene and profane language is what other countries see of Americans makes it worse.

    It is sad. I like comedic faking of a foreign language in our comedy culture, though it is not much practiced anymore, but man to hear so much profanity all packed together like I hear overseas sometimes is just distracting. To be known for it is depressing.

    • #6
    • July 5, 2018, at 11:12 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  7. JoelB Member

    Thanks, Brian. I feel like I learned a few things with this post even though some of it does not cheer me.

    • #7
    • July 5, 2018, at 11:59 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  8. Susan Quinn Contributor

    Fascinating, Brian. A great way to illustrate the impact of humor and culture and relationships, too. Thanks!

    • #8
    • July 5, 2018, at 12:53 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  9. PHCheese Member

    How do I get a missionary position?

    • #9
    • July 5, 2018, at 12:58 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  10. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf

    JoelB (View Comment):

    Thanks, Brian. I feel like I learned a few things with this post even though some of it does not cheer me.

    Glad to spread some knowledge around. Truth is a double edged sword…

    • #10
    • July 5, 2018, at 1:24 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  11. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Fascinating, Brian. A great way to illustrate the impact of humor and culture and relationships, too. Thanks!

    Ahh Susan you make me blush…thank you so much.

    • #11
    • July 5, 2018, at 1:24 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  12. E. Kent Golding Member

    PHCheese (View Comment):

    How do I get a missionary position?

    Go to Vegas with sufficient cash.

    • #12
    • July 5, 2018, at 2:57 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  13. Doctor Robert Member

    Hercules, in atonement for accidentally murdering Iphytis, served queen Omphale of Lydia for three years, dressed as a woman and doing domestic work. After which she married him.

    One asks, is the way to a Lydian queen’s heart through her kitchen?

    • #13
    • July 5, 2018, at 3:30 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  14. Arahant Member

    This really is quite an interesting conversation. Have others noticed the same phenomenon with other foreigners?


    This conversation is an entry in our Group Writing Series under July’s theme of Understanding. If you would like to share your understanding on any topic—people, places, things, ideas—please head on over to our schedule and sign-up sheet. We still have plenty of openings, even as soon as this weekend.

    • #14
    • July 5, 2018, at 7:03 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  15. The Reticulator Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    This really is quite an interesting conversation. Have others noticed the same phenomenon with other foreigners?

    If by foreigners you mean 90 percent of the people on Ricochet, yes, I’ve noticed. 


     

    • #15
    • July 5, 2018, at 7:48 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  16. ST Inactive
    ST

    Better yet is when you can tell a joke to a group in their language and most, if not all, laugh. That is when you are at least beginning to ‘get’ their culture.

    • #16
    • July 6, 2018, at 3:35 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  17. La Tapada Member

    I grew up in the Peruvian Andes, among Quechua people. Here is a joke that they tell, that gets a lot of laughs from them:

    A simple-minded boy lives with his mother (in a one-room adobe house on the mountainside). At bedtime one night he asks if he can be the one to blow out the candle.
    Boy: Mama, can I blow out the candle tonight?
    Mother: No, son, you might burn yourself.
    Boy: Mama, can I blow out the candle?
    Mother: No, son, you might burn yourself.
    Boy: Mama, can I blow out the candle?
    Mother (exasperated): Oh, alright! Blow out the candle!
    Boy: But what if I burn myself?

    As Americans we could never see the humor in it, but it was a good example for us of how much different cultures can be.

    • #17
    • July 6, 2018, at 5:09 AM PDT
    • 8 likes
  18. Arahant Member

    La Tapada (View Comment):
    As Americans we could never see the humor in it,

    Oh, I don’t know. Ever hear the banana knock knock joke?

    • #18
    • July 6, 2018, at 5:27 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  19. La Tapada Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    La Tapada (View Comment):
    As Americans we could never see the humor in it,

    Oh, I don’t know. Ever hear the banana knock knock joke?

    True, true…. 

    • #19
    • July 6, 2018, at 5:51 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  20. Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker Moderator

     One of my more interesting experiences was going to a Chinese movie theater and catching the trailer for Kung Fu Panda. You would not believe how hard the house was laughing, and I felt certain that every kid would be challenging friends and family to chopstick fights over dinner. There is definitely plenty of overlap between American and Chinese senses of humor. 

    • #20
    • July 6, 2018, at 6:40 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  21. David Carroll Thatcher
    David Carroll Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    La Tapada (View Comment):

    I grew up in the Peruvian Andes, among Quechua people. Here is a joke that they tell, that gets a lot of laughs from them:

    A simple-minded boy lives with his mother (in a one-room adobe house on the mountainside). At bedtime one night he asks if he can be the one to blow out the candle.
    Boy: Mama, can I blow out the candle tonight?
    Mother: No, son, you might burn yourself.
    Boy: Mama, can I blow out the candle?
    Mother: No, son, you might burn yourself.
    Boy: Mama, can I blow out the candle?
    Mother (exasperated): Oh, alright! Blow out the candle!
    Boy: But what if I burn myself?

    As Americans we could never see the humor in it, but it was a good example for us of how much different cultures can be.

    Even reading it as an American, the joke is cute. I understand that all jokes lose their humor if they must be explained, but I am curious about the cultural difference. Is it possible to explain what it is in the Quechua culture that makes the joke so funny? 

    • #21
    • July 6, 2018, at 6:46 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  22. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf

    Simon Templar (View Comment):

    Better yet is when you can tell a joke to a group in their language and most, if not all, laugh. That is when you are at least beginning to ‘get’ their culture.

    I agree with this. But to add something to the comment. I also found that people thought something was funny because I did it. Being an outsider made some humor work for me that would not have worked for a national. So sometimes you can do the humor a native can’t.

    • #22
    • July 6, 2018, at 9:59 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  23. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf

    Amy Schley (View Comment):

    One of my more interesting experiences was going to a Chinese movie theater and catching the trailer for Kung Fu Panda. You would not believe how hard the house was laughing, and I felt certain that every kid would be challenging friends and family to chopstick fights over dinner. There is definitely plenty of overlap between American and Chinese senses of humor.

    I also found there to be a great deal of over lap. In many places the American humor of embarrassment, the kind of humor that many sitcoms are based on, would not play well in wide swaths of the world. Slapstick however seems very cross cultural and is probably more appreciated in other countries than in America.

    Though it is ok to watch Americans be embarrassed, or any other foreigner, you just don’t want to watch your own group be embarrassed. 

    • #23
    • July 6, 2018, at 10:05 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  24. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    sawatdeeka (View Comment):
    she met a Thai woman who had learned her English from American military. Her language was beyond inappropriate for polite company. That is a sad part of our military culture,

    When I was teaching conversation English in Japan, several of my hipper high school students (the one who wore the “X” cap, as in Spike Lee’s film on Malcolm X, which came out while I was there) wanted me to tell them more about some of the curse words they knew from American film. 

    I decided that I would have no part in this type of education and feigned utter ignorance, pretending I could not understand any of their non CoC words. They were unimpressed.

    I’m sure they learned them somewhere else, but it wasn’t me…

    • #24
    • July 6, 2018, at 2:21 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  25. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):
    I decided that I would have no part in this type of education and feigned utter ignorance, pretending I could not understand any of their non CoC words. They were unimpressed.

    Good for you. I did learn that some words I didn’t understand in Georgian were curse words. I never asked them to explain those words just to let me know they were bad ones. To this day I can’t curse in Georgian though I do know when someone curses.

    This is a little off topic but I was always fascinated how cursing affects languages. In Georgia their word for “your” is “Sheni” so “your father” would be “Sheni Mama” your house “Sheni sakli” but when you talked about someone mother you could not say “your mother” like this, “Sheni deda” you had to say “Deda sheni” why the reversal?

    Because so many terrible, terrible insults in Georgian started with “Sheni Deda…” or “Your mother…”

    So if you are just talking to someone you always put “mother” before “your” to show you are not planning to insult them. 

    Just saying “Sheni Deda…” Is considered to be a mild threat all by itself.

    Interesting no?

    • #25
    • July 6, 2018, at 3:19 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  26. Phil Turmel Coolidge

    Brian Wolf (View Comment):

    Just saying “Sheni Deda…” Is considered to be a mild threat all by itself.

    Interesting no?

    Yes. There’s a similar case in French where “Vas te faire…” implies a whole lot more that just “You go do..”

    • #26
    • July 6, 2018, at 3:27 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  27. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf

    Phil Turmel (View Comment):

    Brian Wolf (View Comment):

    Just saying “Sheni Deda…” Is considered to be a mild threat all by itself.

    Interesting no?

    Yes. There’s a similar case in French where “Vas te faire…” implies a whole lot more that just “You go do..”

    Great comment. I know a little French but did not know that…

    • #27
    • July 6, 2018, at 3:32 PM PDT
    • Like
  28. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Brian Wolf (View Comment):

    …Because so many terrible, terrible insults in Georgian started with “Sheni Deda…” or “Your mother…”

    So if you are just talking to someone you always put “mother” before “your” to show you are not planning to insult them.

    Just saying “Sheni Deda…” Is considered to be a mild threat all by itself.

    Interesting no?

    The US has “yo’ mama” jokes, though at this point, they’re often facetious rather than insulting.

    • #28
    • July 6, 2018, at 4:07 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  29. ST Inactive
    ST

    Brian Wolf (View Comment):

    Phil Turmel (View Comment):

    Brian Wolf (View Comment):

    Just saying “Sheni Deda…” Is considered to be a mild threat all by itself.

    Interesting no?

    Yes. There’s a similar case in French where “Vas te faire…” implies a whole lot more that just “You go do..”

    Great comment. I know a little French but did not know that…

    The ‘bad’ words are usually some of the first ones that you learn in a new language. Do not ask me why because I do not know the answer; but, you can trust me on this.

    • #29
    • July 6, 2018, at 4:10 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  30. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    If you’re truly a square, you can avoid learning the bad words. In my youth, I was proficient in two languages, and familiar with two more. And… I just didn’t know the cusses. A mild or minced oath was probably the best I could manage. 

    • #30
    • July 6, 2018, at 4:24 PM PDT
    • 3 likes