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Follow the instruction in the comment and revise the work.

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Sangtian Ding Comment by Bailee D Chandler: I’m curious. It seems like you did not revise & resubmit your S&S essay for Wed’s 2/9’s homework or in class on Weds when we style workshopped. Is there a reason you did not revise & resubmit? Incomplete labor like this can impact your ability to pass the class &/or your final grade.

Bailee Chandler


Feb 6

Philosophy of Jokes and Its impacts on Society, Culture, and Human Identity

Comment by Bailee D Chandler: I’m overwhelmed. This 1st line strategy is broad. Can you begin with a question, quote or example that is relevant to the scholarly convo and your MQ?

The main catch in this essay is how a joke can positively or negatively affect people from different societies. These are people from different cultural backgrounds and human identities, including being female and male members of society. Furthermore, a joke is anything said by a person to cause laughter or amusement, especially stories that have funny punchlines. Jokes also define people’s identities and a person’s identity can be an inside joke. For that reason, jokes can negatively or positively affect different people or social groups having different cultural backgrounds. According to Yue et al. (2016), humor appears to manifest contrarily in Eastern and Western cultures even with the small information known about how culture shapes the perception about humor or jokes. Comment by Bailee D Chandler: I’m unsure. Is this your MQ? Can you phrase it as inquiry? Can you add more L3 specificity? What kind of jokes (inappropriate jokes, charged humor, sarcastic jokes, etc)? Is it negative or positive (try to pick 1)? Is it “people or social groups” (try to pick 1)?

Yue et al. (2016) suggest that Westerners consider a joke as a positive and common outlook while the Chinese consider humor as an exceptional outlook explicit to humorists, displaying debatable aspects. Consequently, humor is professed more positively by Western Culture than Eastern Culture. Canadians also evaluate humor to be important when compared to how the Chinese evaluate humor. According to the Chinese Culture, only specialized comedians are expected to be humorous while Canadians expect anybody to possess humor. Perhaps, the possession of humor is influenced by different perspectives on humor as people come from different cultural backgrounds (Yue et al., 2016). Comment by Bailee D Chandler: I’m rushed & skeptical. Can you develop more summary for readers that haven’t read the sources? Can you provide a quote-worthy quote that gives readers access to important exact language from the text?

Comment by Bailee D Chandler: I’m cautious. This is patch-writing where at times you are copying verbatim from Yue without giving quotations or citations. This violates AI standards & also indicates that you do not understand the sources. I also don’t see any of your voice here via analysis.

Yue et al. (2016) also confirm that humor is a broad and multifaceted concept since it encompasses comic and amusement reactions. The psychosomatic cognitive nature of humor involves evaluating the perceptions of playful strangeness, vocal-behavioral languages of laughter, and joyful emotions. Even though wit is referred to as a universal human experience, individuals from different cultures still use and recognize humor differently. For that reason, it is easier to say that Westerners are seriously funny while Chinese individuals are funnily serious. Yue et al. (2016) clarify that humor styles can be classified as affiliative, self-enhancing, belligerent, and self-defeating. These styles of humor indicate that both Easterners and Westerners are deterred and distraught by aggressive humor. For instance, people from North America tend to react positively to humor that is perceived to be self-enhancing while people from Eastern do not. This is a sign that cultural dissimilarities are ascribed to Eastern collectivistic and Western distinctive cultural differences.

Comment by Bailee D Chandler: I’m lost. How is Critchley building on the convo that Yue was having? Old-to-new sentences can help show these connections & create cohesion/flow.

Critchley (2002) also relates humor or joke with philosophy and according to the professor, philosophy is a funny business and most philosophers are known to be funny people. For instance, a philosopher will ask a person to be skeptical about issues people take for granted and the reality of the world. In that regard, the thoughts of a philosopher are comparable to that of comedians who train themselves to ask people to look into the world askance. Both a humorist and philosopher will ask individuals to view the world from the viewpoint of Martian. They want societies to view things as if they came from another planet. Philosophically, a joke can be a meaningful and specific practice recognized by both the teller and the audience (Critchley, 2002). Joke or humor brings the aspect of the social contract, which is a form of agreement in the social world that individuals found themselves in the inherent background supported by a joke. For that reason, there is a need to have a consensus or shared understanding of what a joke entails since some issues are regarded as jokes while others are not.

Even Though St.George (2015) has similar arguments to Yue et al. (2016) on the issues pertaining to cultural influence on humor, the author is more concerned with how identity is an inside joke. St.George (2015) discussion on humor or joke is borrowed from the words presented by the Dutch sociologist Giselinde Kuipers. He stated that decision of whether something is humorous or not can be unconscious, spontaneous, or almost a reflex. This is a sign that comedy lies closely to self-image. For that reason, St.George (2015) confirms that humor tends to take the shape of the teller’s surroundings, which include clan, class, gender, and age. Therefore, shared humor means shared identity and shared ways in which people confront reality. When people do not get a joke they always feel left out, but when they get, the feeling of belonging is witnessed. Subsequently, when two individuals are laughing it means that they recognize the world in the same way. Comment by Bailee D Chandler: I’m curious, but skeptical. This seems important to your MQ. Is there a quote to prove this point?

Comment by Bailee D Chandler: I’m lost. I don’t understand the organization you’re following. Why is it necessary to have multiple paragraphs of summary for Yue & St. George? Where is the convo between the authors?

According to St.George (2015), humor can help people find their own boundaries even if it is a dull one. Members of society are also bounded by things that they find not to be funny. The idea is borrowed from the understanding of the science of when to laugh and why to laugh. For that reason, it is imperious to know the audience before delivering a joke. The same audience will determine whether the tale is serious or not. Once more, some witticisms or humor tend to be precise to a certain group of people. Humor can be good, but unfortunately, become a bad taste to the audience.

St.George (2015) continues to confirm his concept of identity is an inside joke. He goes further to explain that jokes are meant to throw the boundaries of perceived gender identities, specifically the types of jokes that are into sharp relief. The argument is also supported by the fact that men are always more fun than women. The argument here is that men are always attracted to women’s bodies, and for that reason, women do not need to develop a good sense of humor. In other words, men need to rely on their wit and humor in order to get laid. However, there is a category of women who are funny and they do it behind their men’s back. St.George (2015) insists that women should know that humor is not only about jokes but the audience must also be involved. Humor is meant to carry the message that changes perceptions of people of different identities and belonging.

Despite having the collective desire of changing gender parity, the consumption of charged humor gives the way to do so. St.George (2015) explains that is the jokes that people say, that influence their identity of being a male or female. This is summarized in the gender role narrative, whereby some jokes are exceptionally adaptable to specific listeners. The joke can be from the man’s or woman’s point of view, but the riff that comes with being stereotypes will distort the message. For instance, it is obvious that women like feelings and shopping at the same time. Men, in contrast, like sports and do not like being linked to feelings.

Comment by Bailee D Chandler: Mark,
It was a pleasure to read your 1st draft. Your MQ has an effective beginning to L3 specificity in your focus on different backgrounds. Nice work! To globally revise:
I encourage you to reconsider the actor/action & cause & effect you’ve created in your MQ. Your MQ suggests that jokes are the subject that affects different cultures. However, your summaries /evidence start to point to different cultures/backgrounds as the subject/actor that determines if comedy is negative/positive. Therefore, your MQ might be focused on this subject, which changes your cause & effect too. In other words, your MQ might focus on exploring how/ways/extent that different cultural backgrounds determine if comedy is negative. I encourage you to apply this revision/logic to your MQ & to your summaries/convo (see below for more advice).

I encourage you to develop your summaries with strategic evidence, especially quotes, that speak to your MQ. I encourage you to return to all texts and reread for more effective evidence, especially evidence that focuses on argument points and/or main claims. Then, try to follow them with analysis that explains what the evidence means.

I suggest you work carefully on writing summaries in your own words, rather than patch-writing/copying from the texts without giving credit. If you need help understanding what the texts are arguing & how you can put them into your own words, I strongly encourage you to come to office hours & mentor meetings to get help with this strategy.

Your global organization is difficult to follow & doesn’t leave you much room to synthesize. I encourage you to follow a BFF or 2X1 structure (see Class Collaboration 6.1 for advice on global organization) & to develop 1-2 paragraphs focused exclusively on the convo between the scholars & how they answer your MQ.

This draft needs significant global revisions. I encourage you to get additional help from Joey & myself to revise. Good luck revising!


Critchley, S. (2002). Did you hear the one about the philosopher writing a book on humor? ​Think Autumn.

Zach St.George (2015) Identity Is an Inside Joke. Why do you laugh with your friends? Illustration by Robin Davey.

Yue, X., Jiang, F.,, Lu, S & Hiranandani, N. (2016). To Be or Not To Be Humorous? ​​Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Humor. Frontiers in Psychology.

fpsyg-07-01495 October 4, 2016 Time: 13:22 # 1

published: 04 October 2016

doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01495

Edited by:

Vinai Norasakkunkit,
Gonzaga University, USA

Reviewed by:

Jenn-Yeu Chen,
National Taiwan Normal University,

Chris Sinha,

Hunan University, UK


Feng Jiang
[email protected]

Specialty section:

This article was submitted to
Cultural Psychology,

a section of the journal
Frontiers in Psychology

Received: 04 May 2016
Accepted: 16 September 2016

Published: 04 October 2016


Yue X, Jiang F, Lu S and
Hiranandani N (2016) To Be or Not To

Be Humorous? Cross Cultural
Perspectives on Humor.
Front. Psychol. 7:1495.

doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01495

To Be or Not To Be Humorous? Cross
Cultural Perspectives on Humor
Xiaodong Yue1, Feng Jiang2*, Su Lu3 and Neelam Hiranandani1

1 Department of Social Science, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2 Department of Organization and
Human Resources Management, Central University of Finance and Economics, Beijing, China, 3 Department of Human
Resources Management, University of International Business and Economics, Beijing, China

Humor seems to manifest differently in Western and Eastern cultures, although little
is known about how culture shapes humor perceptions. The authors suggest that
Westerners regard humor as a common and positive disposition; the Chinese regard
humor as a special disposition particular to humorists, with controversial aspects. In
Study 1, Hong Kong participants primed with Western culture evaluate humor more
positively than they do when primed with Chinese culture. In Study 2a, Canadians
evaluate humor as being more important in comparison with Chinese participants. In
Study 2b, Canadians expect ordinary people to possess humor, while Chinese expect
specialized comedians to be humorous. The implications and limitations are discussed.

Keywords: Chinese, humor perception, humor evaluation, cultural priming, Western


On December 14, 2008, an Iraqi journalist startled attendees at a press conference at the prime
minister’s palace in Baghdad, Iraq, by throwing a shoe at U.S. President George W. Bush. After
the incident, Bush joked: “If you want the facts, it’s a size 10” (BBC, 2008). A few weeks later, on
February 2, 2009, a student threw a shoe at Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao as he was giving a speech at
the University of Cambridge. The student was removed from the lecture hall, but Premier Wen was
not amused: “this despicable behavior will do nothing to hold back the friendship of the Chinese
and British people” (China View, 2009). Two leaders, Western and Chinese, and two vastly di�erent
reactions to an unexpected insult, one humorous and one serious: the incidents highlight culturally
di�erent attitudes toward humor, the subject of this article.

Humor is a broad and multifaceted concept. The Oxford English dictionary defines humor
as “the faculty of observing what is ludicrous or amusing or of expressing it; jocose imagination
or treatment of a subject” (SOED, third edition). Humor encompasses amusement and comic
reactions (Simpson and Weiner, 1989), psychological cognitive appraisals comprising perceptions
of playful incongruity, mirthful emotions, and vocal-behavioral expressions of laughter (Martin,
2007, p. 10). Although humor is a universal human experience, people of di�erent societies
perceive and use humor di�erently (Martin, 2007; Yue, 2010). In the context of cross-cultural
di�erences between Westerners and the Chinese, Judge Wu said: “Whereas Westerners are
seriously humorous, Chinese people are humorously serious” (quoted in Kao, 1974, p. xviii).

Styles of humor are categorized as self-enhancing, a�liative, self-defeating, and aggressive
(Kuiper et al., 2004; Martin, 2007). The four humor types have been investigated across cultures to
show that both Westerners and Easterners are saddened and repelled by aggressive humor (Kuiper
et al., 2010). North Americans react positively to self-enhancing humor, while Easterners do not
(Kuiper et al., 2004; Chen and Martin, 2005). The cultural di�erences are attributed to the Western
individualistic versus Eastern collectivistic cultural distinctions. In other words, Easterners have a

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Yue et al. Culture and Humor

collectivistic orientation that blurs the distinction between self
and others so that they have weaker perceptions regarding self-
oriented (self-enhancing) and other-oriented (a�liative) humor.

In general, Western individuals tolerate and use humor more
than Chinese individuals do (e.g., Liao, 1998; Chen and Martin,
2007; Davis, 2011; Yue, 2011). Research has focused on specific
humor styles but not on general perceptions of humor. The shoe-
throwing incidents that sparked such diverse reactions inspired
us to examine how people from di�erent cultural backgrounds
view humor in general, rather than focusing on the specific
styles. We propose that Westerners will see humor as a positive
disposition that enhances self-actualization and interpersonal
relationships, and that everyone possesses the popular trait (e.g.,
Maslow, 1968; Martin, 2007). In contrast, the Chinese will view
humor as a controversial disposition in social interactions and
a personality trait possessed largely by specialists in humor-
related fields (e.g., Lin, 1974; Yue, 2010, 2011; Davis, 2011; Xu,
2011). Next we present a detailed description of the two views on

The Western View on Humor
Westerners tend to take humor as a natural feature of life
and to use it wherever and whenever possible (Apte, 1985). In
fact, Westerners have valued humor since the era of Plato and
Aristotle as a natural expression of amusement, fun, and delight
in social interactions (Grant, 1924/1970). The 19th and early 20th
centuries are thought to be the beginning of a golden age of
humor, particularly for American society (Bier, 1968; Blair and
Hill, 1978):

Humor is ubiquitous in American society and nothing escapes
from becoming its target. Humor in its numerous techniques
and forms is directed at the population through all conceivable
channels – newsprint, magazines, books, visual and plastic
arts, comedy performances, and amateur joke-telling contests,
as well as many types of artifacts such as T-shirts, watches,
bumper stickers, greeting cards, sculptures, toys, and so forth
(Apte, 1985, p. 30).

Freud (1928) posited that humor is an e�ective defense
mechanism against negative emotions. On one hand, laughter
releases excess nervous energy; on the other hand, humor
provides alternative perspectives about fear, sadness, or anger in
the face of incongruous or amusing components (Martin, 2007).
Early 20th century Western psychologists argued that humor and
laughter enhance human health (e.g., Sully, 1902; McDougall,
1922), promote creativity (e.g., Guilford, 1950; Richards, 1990),
and strengthen coping and optimism (e.g., Walsh, 1928).

Western research shows that humor could be an indispensable
“panacea” in daily life to facilitate coping (e.g., Lefcourt et al.,
1995; Kuiper and Martin, 1998; Moran and Massam, 1999;
Lefcourt, 2001), promote impression management (e.g., Mettee
et al., 1971), and enhance interpersonal attraction (e.g., Fraley
and Aron, 2004). In addition, Westerners tend to regard humor
as a core trait of self-actualization (Maslow, 1968; Mintz, 1983;
Mindess et al., 1985) and an essential characteristic of creativity
(Guilford, 1950; Sternberg, 1985).

Moreover, in the West, individuals who engage in humorous
behavior are often perceived as positive and attractive (Bressler
et al., 2006). Westerners tend to rate humor as an ideal and
critical personal characteristic for dating or romantic partners
(Hansen and Hicks, 1980; Regan and Joshi, 2003). Beyond
romantic a�liations, Westerners have positive perceptions about
humorous individuals. For example, a study in organizational
contexts revealed that subordinates view humorous supervisors
as more motivating, confident, friendly, intelligent, and pleasant
leaders (Decker, 1987; Priest and Swain, 2002). Similarly, in
competitive sports contexts, players wanted to play for a
humorous coach and perceived the coach as competent (Grisa�e
et al., 2003). In short, in Western society, people who have a
sense of humor are positively perceived as more extroverted and
socially desirable; in contrast, those who lack a sense of humor
draw negative perceptions (Allport, 1961; Cann and Calhoun,
2001; Priest and Swain, 2002).

As such, it is no surprise that President Bush joked about
the size of the shoe that was thrown at him. True to Western
perceptions of humor, he demonstrated wit and charisma in the
face of an embarrassing situation.

The Chinese View on Humor
In China, humor was first documented about 2,000 years ago
(Yue, 2010; Chey, 2011; Davis, 2011). The Chinese term huaji is
regarded as an alternative word for humor meaning wit, irony,
and sarcasm (Chen, 1985; Liao, 2003). The earliest form of
Chinese humor could be pai shuo, which means small talk or
jokes (see Yue, 2010, for a review). In the 1920s, Lin Yu-tang
(1895–1976), a well-known writer and scholar, used the Chinese
character youmo as the Chinese version of humor. Since then,
youmo has widely represented wit, irony, and hilarity (Lin, 1974).

Although humor has a long past, for the past 2000 years it
has been devalued under Confucianism (Lin, 1974; Yue, 2010,
2011; Xu, 2011). Lin (1974) used the term Confucian Puritanism
to depict how humor was despised:

Confucian decorum put a damper on light, humorous
writing, as well as on all imaginative literature, except poetry.
Drama and the novel were despised as unworthy of a
respectable scholar’s occupation…… This puritanical, austere
public attitude has persisted to this day (Lin, 1974, p. xxxi).

As such, the Confucian way of a gentleman requires restraint
from laughter to demonstrate dignity and social formality
(Yue, 2010; Xu, 2011). The Confucian doctrine of moderation
advocates against hilarious laughter because it expresses extreme
emotion (Liao, 1998). The Confucian orthodox literary writings
forbade humorous expressions as being beneath proper literature
(Lin, 1974; Yue, 2010; Qian, 2011). Confucius even said “a man
has to be serious to be respected” (Liao, 2007). As a result, the
Chinese feel that they should laugh only at certain times, in
conjunction with certain subjects, and only with certain people
(Yue, 2011).

If they chose to laugh, Chinese people were advised to laugh
gently. Chinese women were advised to cover their mouths with
their hands (Lin, 1934). In short, owing to Confucian concerns

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Yue et al. Culture and Humor

for maintaining proper social order and hierarchy, proper
humor is “a form of private, moderate, good-natured, tasteful,
and didactically useful mirth” (Xu, 2011, p. 70). Consequently,
Chinese people have long scorned public humor. Confucian
moralists feared that once humorous writing styles spread,
life would lose its seriousness, and sophistry would overturn
orthodoxy (Yue, 2010, 2011; Sample, 2011).

Though humor has thrived in China since the downfall of
the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Chinese people are still heavily
influenced by cultural biases against public humor that are
deeply rooted in Confucianism (Davis, 2011; Xu, 2011). For
example, humor has been consistently omitted from the list of
qualities required for being a typical and creative Chinese thinker
(Rudowicz and Yue, 2000, 2003; Rudowicz, 2003; Yue et al., 2006;
Yue, 2011). Loud laughter tends to make Chinese people feel
nervous and uncomfortable (Liao, 1998). In addition, Chinese
students tend to consider themselves as being less humorous than
Canadian students, and they tend to use less humor to cope with
stress (Chen and Martin, 2005). Similarly, American students
rated sexual and aggressive jokes as funnier than Singaporean
Chinese students who preferred harmless humor (Nevo et al.,
2001). Those findings support the claim that Chinese prefer a
“thoughtful smile” to “hilarious laughter” (Lin, 1974). Thus, it
is no surprise that Premier Wen would respond sternly to the
shoe-throwing incident to keep his dignity.

Consistent with those observations, Yue (2011) systematically
reviewed Chinese perceptions and identified three Chinese
ambivalences toward humor. First, the Chinese tend to value
humor but devalue humor as a trait of self. Chinese traditional
social norms value seriousness, so Chinese people tend to
fear that being humorous will jeopardize their social status.
For instance, although Chinese undergraduates self-reported
that humor is important in everyday life, they reported that
they were not humorous themselves (Yue et al., 2006; Yue,
2011). Second, as Yue (2011) explained, being humorous
is inappropriate for orthodox Chinese because Confucianism
has equated humor with intellectual shallowness and social
informality (Yue, 2010). For example, Chinese students do not
rank humor as characteristic of an ideal Chinese personality
(Rudowicz and Yue, 2003; Yue et al., 2006). Chen (1985) argued
that Chinese jokes have always focused on “denial humor” that
criticizes reality and “complimentary humor” that praises reality,
in contrast with the “pure humor” that makes people laugh in
Western jokes. Third, the Chinese tend to believe that humor is
important but only for professional entertainers with exclusive
expertise and special talent.

Although the four styles of humor have been examined cross-
culturally, few empirical studies have examined cross-cultural
di�erences on general humor perceptions (e.g., Nevo et al.,
2001; Jiang et al., 2011). Jiang et al. (2011) found that Chinese
undergraduates tended to associate humor with unpleasant
adjectives and seriousness with pleasant adjectives; the opposite
was true for American undergraduates. Such a finding indicates
that Westerners and Chinese may hold di�erent views toward
humor in general. In addition, little work has been done to
provide a comprehensive picture of the cultural di�erences
on humor perception. Therefore, we conducted two studies

to systematically verify the proposed dichotomy between the
Western and Chinese view on humor.


Two studies were conducted to examine Western versus Chinese
views on humor. In Study 1, Hong Kong Chinese participants
(bicultural samples) were first primed with either Western culture
icons or Chinese culture icons. Then they were asked to use
adjectives from a list to describe a humorous person. We expected
the priming with Western culture icons would cause Hong Kong
participants to assign significantly more positive adjectives, while
the priming with Chinese culture icons would have the opposite
e�ect. In Study 2a, participants from Canada and China were
asked to rate the importance of humor, self-humor, and sense
of humor. We expected that the Chinese would give significantly
lower ratings to all three. In Study 2b, participants from Canada
and China were asked to identify the names and occupations
of up to three humorous persons. We expected that Canadian
participants would nominate significantly more ordinary people
than Chinese participants, and Chinese participants would
nominate significantly more humor-relevant specialists such as
comedians and cartoonists. Taken together, we hoped to find
consistent findings for the proposed dichotomy between Western
and Chinese views on humor.


We conducted Study 1 as a between subject design by priming
Chinese and Western cultural di�erences. Bicultural Hong Kong
people are considered appropriate for cultural priming studies.
(For details, see Hong et al., 2000). Our purpose was to determine
whether study participants exposed to pictures associated with
Chinese or Western culture would be induced to perceive
di�erent qualities in a humorous person.

Participants and Design

Ninety-six Hong Kong college students (31 men, 65 women)
were recruited. They averaged 24.01 years old (SD = 3.78 years).
Participants were randomly assigned to two experimental
groups: the Chinese picture-priming condition or the Western
picture-priming condition. Following the priming (about 15 s),
participants were asked to judge a humorous person by choosing
from a list of 40 adjectives (Zhang et al., 1998). Oral instructions
were given in Chinese and English and were counterbalanced
across the priming condition to reduce potential language
biases (e.g., Meier and Cheng, 2004). After the experiment, all
participants were debriefed, thanked, and dismissed.

Materials and Procedures

We used 26 priming pictures, 13 for each culture (Figures 1
and 2), from priming materials developed by Ng and Lai (2009)
and based on the work of Hong et al. (2000). Moreover, the

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Yue et al. Culture and Humor

while Westerners value it (Kuiper et al., 2010). The di�erent
cultural views may lead to cultural biases. For instance, Chinese
children tend to see humor as aggressive and disruptive (Chen
et al., 1992). Consequently, Americans and Chinese who try to
communicate cross culturally many find that cultural variations
regarding humor may disrupt their communications.

Third, we are not saying that Chinese people lack humor.
On the contrary, abundant evidence shows that humor has been
common and popular throughout Chinese history (Xiao, 1996).
Instead, we argue that Confucian biases have caused public
humor to be more “in deeds than in words, more practiced than
preached” in China (Kao, 1974, p. xxii). Thus, before a Chinese
leader such as Wen Jiabao could joke about an embarrassing
situation, the general Chinese population must first see humor
as positive and desirable. They must go beyond Confucian
puritanism that frowns on humor and instead learn to value,
appreciate, and use humor whenever and wherever possible
(Chen and Martin, 2005; Yue, 2010, 2011).

As Lin Yutang said, “the secret of humor is to be natural and
to be oneself, to face oneself in the mirror and to tear down the
hypocritical disguise” (Qian, 2011, p. 211). After all, the ability
to laugh at ourselves comes from broad-minded detachment
regarding our own imperfections. And this remains to be further
examined in later studies.

Limitations and Future Directions
The current study has several inherent limitations that should
be noted. First, Hong Kong Chinese, not Mainland Chinese,
participated in Study 2. As Hong Kong is highly westernized,
the students may not perfectly represent Chinese society. The
findings may lend credence to the expectation that Mainland
Chinese will show even greater di�erences with Westerners.
Consequently, future investigations should replicate the current
findings with more Mainland Chinese samples. Second, although
the results of Study 2a are consistent with what we found in
Studies 1 and 2b, it still bears the contamination of culture-related
response biases (e.g., Chen et al., 1995; Heine et al., 2002). As
we know, people from di�erent cultures tend to use di�erent
referents in their self-reported values. Thus, Canadians in the
current research evaluated humor in comparison with other
Canadians, whereas Chinese evaluated humor in comparison
with other Chinese. In addition, Chinese are more likely than
Canadians to use the midpoint on self-reported scales (e.g.,
Markus and Kitayama, 1991; Chen et al., 1995). For future
investigations, it would be necessary to measure participants’
evaluation on both humor and seriousness. In doing so, we
can examine the di�erences of rating patterns instead of direct
rating scores between Chinese and Canadians. In other words,

it allows us to investigate whether Canadian participants would
rate humor as being more important to them than being
serious, while the opposite pattern would be true for Chinese
participants. Third, the nomination method (Study 2b) helped to
validate the two contrasting views of humor between the West
and the East, but social media influences and entertainment
development could be confounding factors (e.g., Buijzen and
Valkenburg, 2004). Therefore, future studies should control
for interfering factors. Fourth, all samples were confined to
university students. For broader generalization, future studies
should recruit participants of various ages and from various


The current research provides new evidence and a broader
perspective for studying cultural di�erences regarding humor
perception. Westerners view humor as a commonly owned trait
and as a positive disposition for self-actualization. In contrast, the
Chinese consider humor to be restricted to humor professionals
and less desirable for social interactions. Two studies employing
priming paradigm, questionnaire measurement, and nomination
technique presented in this paper reveal the dichotomy. We hope
that these findings stimulate future studies that venture further
into the frontier area of humor.


All authors conceptualized the manuscript, XY and FJ wrote the
first complete draft, XY and SL contributed additional writing, FJ,
SL, and NH contributed data collection and analysis, all authors
edited the manuscript and approved the final version.


The current work was supported by Research grant of City
University of Hong Kong (No. 7004315) awarded to XY, and
National Natural Science Foundation of China awarded to FJ
(No.71401190) and SL (No.71401036).


We would like to thanks Mr. Chun Wing Lai for helping data

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Conflict of Interest Statement: The authors declare that the research was
conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could
be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Copyright © 2016 Yue, Jiang, Lu and Hiranandani. This is an open-access
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Frontiers in Psychology | 10 October 2016 | Volume 7 | Article 1495


Simon Critchley

Simon Critchley, Professor of Philosophy at the Uni-
versity of Essex, investigates humour. And tells some
pretty good jokes.

Philosophy is a funny business and some philosophers 5*
are funny people. The philosopher asks you to look at the * ”
world awry, to place in question your usual habits, assump- ^
tions, prejudices and expectations. The philosopher asks £”
you to be sceptical about all sorts of things you would ordi- 3
narily take for granted, like the reality of things in the world =3

or whether the people around you are actually human or o
really robots. In this regard, the philosopher has, I think, a §
family resemblance with the comedian, who also asks us to •
look at the world askance, to imagine a topsy-turvy universe T?
where horses and dogs talk and where lifeless objects be- GO
come miraculously animated. Both the philosopher and the
comedian ask you to view the world from a Martian perspec-
tive, to look at things as if you had just landed from another
planet. With this rough resemblance in mind, I became in-
terested in jokes, humour and the comic and I have just
finished writing a short book on the topic.1

Let’s begin by considering what takes place in a joke. The
first thing we can say is that joking is a specific and mean-
ingful practice that the audience and the joke-teller recog-
nize as such. There is what we might call a tacit social
contract at work here, namely some agreement about the
social world in which we find ourselves as the implicit back-
ground to the joke. There has to be a sort of consensus or
implicit shared understanding as to what constitutes joking
‘for us’, as to which linguistic or visual routines are recog-
nized as joking and which ones are not. Most jokes work
through the experience of a felt incongruity between what
we expect to be the case and what actually takes place in
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the joke: ‘Did you see me at Princess Diana’s funeral? I
was the one that started the Mexican wave.’ But in order for
the incongruity of the joke to be seen as such, there has to
be a congruence between joke structure and social struc-
ture. It is necessary that we all know that a Mexican wave
certainly did not take place on the occasion of Diana’s fu-
neral in order to appreciate the incongruity of the above joke,

f̂r When this implicit congruence or tacit contract is missing,
•— then laughter will probably not result, which can be the ex-
• perience of trying – and failing – to tell a joke in a foreign
D language. In his classic book, Laughter, published in 1900,
2 the French philosopher Henri Bergson explains what he calls
3 ‘the leading idea in all our investigations’,
^” To understand laughter, we must put it back into its
2 : natural environment, which is society, and above all
• ; we must determine the utility of its function, which is
< j a social one. […] Laughter must answer to certain

requirements of life in common. It must have a social

So, in listening to a joke, I am presupposing a social world
that is shared, the forms of which the practice of joke-telling
is going to play with. Joking is a game that players only
play successfully when they both understand and follow the
rules. Ludwig Wittgenstein puts the point perspicuously in
one of his posthumously published remarks,

What is it like for people not to have the same sense
of humour? They do not react properly to each other.
It’s as though there were a custom amongst certain
people for one person to throw another a ball which
he is supposed to catch and throw back; but some
people, instead of throwing it back, put it in their

With this in mind, some anthropologists have compared
jokes with rites.4 A rite is here understood as a symbolic
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act that derives its meaning from a cluster of socially legiti-
mated symbols, such as a funeral. But insofar as the joke
plays with the symbolic forms of society – the bishop gets
stuck in a lift, I spread margarine on the communion wafer –
jokes might be thought of as anti-rites. They mock, parody
or deride the ritual practices of a given society, as the Czech
novelist Milan Kundera, remarks, ‘Someone’s hat falls on
the coffin in a freshly dug grave, the funeral loses its mean- z !
ing and laughter is born’.5 5*

Suppose that someone starts to tell you a joke: ‘I never * ”
left the house as a child. My family were so poor that my ^
mother couldn’t afford to buy us clothes’. Firstly, I recognize £”
that a joke is being told and I assent to having my attention 3
caught in this way. Assenting to having my attention caught -3

is very important and if someone interrupts the joke-teller or o
simply walks away in the middle of the joke, then the tacit §
social contract of humour has been broken. This is bad form •
or simply bad manners. Instead of throwing the ball back, I – r
put it in my pocket. In thus assenting and going along with en
the joke, a certain tension is created in the listener and I
follow along willingly with the story that is being recounted.
When the punch-line kicks in, and the little bubble of ten-
sion pops, I experience an affect that can be described as
pleasure, and I laugh or just smile: ‘When I was ten my
mother bought me a hat, so that I could look out of the

What happens here is, as Immanuel Kant puts it in a bril-
liant short discussion of laughter from The Critique of Judge-
ment, a sudden evaporation of expectation to nothing.6 In
hearing the punch-line, the tension disappears and we ex-
perience comic relief. Rather than the tiresome and indeed
racist examples of jokes that Kant recounts, involving Indi-
ans and bottles of beer, witness the poet Philip Larkin in a
characteristic flourish,

When I drop four cubes of ice
Chimingly in a glass, and add
Three goes of gin, a lemon slice,
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And let a ten-ounce tonic void
In foaming gulps until it smothers
Everything else up to the edge,
I lift the lot in silent pledge:
He devoted his life to others.7

The admittedly rather dry humour here is found in a com-
-o bination of two features: conceptual and rhetorical. On the
<— one hand, there is the conceptual disjunction between the
* wanton hedonism involved in preparing the gin and tonic,
3 and the avowed altruism of the final line. But also – more
2 importantly – there is the rhetorical effect generated by the
3 sudden bathos of the final line in comparison to the cumula-
te tive overkill of what precedes it. It is important to emphasize
ty* the necessary suddenness of the conceptual and rhetorical
E shift. Both brevity and speed are the soul of wit.

Changing the situation

But is that an end to the matter? Is that it? Hopefully not.
I want to claim that humour is not just comic relief, a tran-
sient corporeal affect induced by the raising and extinguish-
ing of tension, of as little social consequence as masturba-
tion, although slightly more acceptable to perform in public.
I rather want to claim that what goes on in humour is a form
of liberation or elevation that expresses something essen-
tial to the humanity of the human being. The shape of the
thought I am after is expressed by Eddie Waters, the phi-
losopher-comedian from Trevor Griffiths’s brilliant 1976 drama

A real comedian – that’s a daring man. He dares to
see what his listeners shy away from, fear to express.
And what he sees is a sort of truth about people,
about their situation, about what hurts or terrifies them,
about what’s hard, above all, about what they want. A
joke releases the tension, says the unsayable, any
joke pretty well. But a true joke, a comedian’s joke,
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has to do more than release tension, it has to liber-
ate the will and the desire, it has to change the situ-

The claim here is that any joke releases tension, but a
true joke, a comedian’s joke, suddenly and explosively lets
us see the familiar defamiliarized, the ordinary made ex-
traordinary and the real rendered surreal, and we laugh in a =•
physiological squeal of transient delight, like an infant play- 5*
ing peek-a-boo. In my view, the best humour brings about a * ”
change of situation, a transient but significant shift in the ^
way we view reality. cf

This idea of a change of situation can be caught in Mary 3
Douglas’s claim that, ‘A joke is a play upon form that af- 3

fords an opportunity for realising that an accepted pattern o
has no necessity’-9 Thus, jokes are a play upon form, where {o
what is played with are the accepted practices of a given •
society. The incongruities of humour both speak out of a -?
massive congruence between joke structure and social struc- v j
ture, and speak against those structures by showing that
they have no necessity. The anti-rite of the joke shows the
sheer contingency or arbitrariness of the social rites in which
we engage. By producing a consciousness of contingency,
humour can change the situation in which we find ourselves,
and can even have a critical function with respect to society.
Hence the great importance that humour has played in so-
cial movements that have set out to criticize the established
order, such as radical feminist humour, ‘How many men does
it take to tile a bathroom?’, ‘I don’t know’, ‘It depends how
thinly you slice them’. As the Italian street slogan has it,
Una risata vi seppellira, it will be a laugh that buries you,
where the ‘you’ refers to those in power. By laughing at power,
we expose its contingency, we realise that what appeared
to be fixed and oppressive is in fact the emperor’s new
clothes, and just the sort of thing that should be mocked
and ridiculed.
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Reactionary humour
But before we get carried away, it is important to recog-

nize that not all humour is of this type, and most of the best
jokes are fairly reactionary or, at best, simply serve to rein-
force social consensus. You will have noticed a couple of
paragraphs back that, following Eddie Waters, I introduced
the adjective ‘true’ into our discussion of humour. True’ hu-

oo mour changes the situation, tells us something about who
•— we are and the sort of place we live in, and perhaps indi-
• cates to us how it might be changed. This sounds very nice,
D but it presupposes a great deal. A number of items cry out
2 for recognition here.
3 Most humour, in particular the comedy of recognition –
-C and most humour is comedy of recognition – simply seeks
<y to reinforce consensus and in no way seeks to criticize the

JE established order or change the situation in which we find
* ; ourselves. Such humour does not seek to change the situ-
( j ation, but simply toys with existing social hierarchies in a

charming but quite benign fashion, as in P G Wodehouse’s
The World of Jeeves. This is the comic as sheer pleasing
diversion, and it has an important place in any taxonomy of
humour. More egregiously, much humour seeks to confirm
the status quo either by denigrating a certain sector of soci-
ety, as in sexist humour, or by laughing at the alleged stu-
pidity of a social outsider. Thus, the British laugh at the
Irish, the Canadians laugh at the Newfies, the Americans
laugh at the Poles, the Swedes laugh at the Finns, the Ger-
mans laugh at the Ostfrieslanders, the Greeks laugh at the
Pontians, the Czechs laugh at the Slovaks, the Russians
laugh at the Ukrainians, the French laugh at the Belgians,
the Dutch also laugh at the Belgians, and so on and so
forth. Such comic scapegoating corresponds to what Hobbes
means in suggesting that laughter is a feeling of sudden
glory where I find another person ridiculous and laugh at
their expense. Such humour is not laughter at power, but
the powerful laughing at the powerless.
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The reactionary quality of much humour, in particular eth-
nic humour, must be analysed, which I cannot do fully here,
but my claim is that such humour lets us reflect upon the
anxious nature of our thrownness in the world. What I mean
by the latter is that in its ‘untruth’, as it were, reactionary
humour tells us important truths about who we are. Jokes
can therefore be read as symptoms of societal repression
and their study might be said to amount to what Freud would z !
call ‘a return of the repressed’. In other words, humour can 5*
reveal us to be persons that, frankly, we would really not * ”
rather be. ^

Structured fun 3

Humour is being employed as a management tool by con- -5

sultants – imagine, if you will, a company called ‘Humour o
Solutions International’ – who endeavour to show how it can §
produce greater cohesion amongst the workforce and •
thereby increase efficiency and productivity. This is beauti- —”
fully caught in the slogan: ‘laughter loves company and com- ^o
panies love laughter’. Some management consultants refer
to such activity as ‘structured fun’, which includes innova-
tions like ‘inside out day’, where all employees are asked to
wear their clothes inside out, or ‘silly hat day’, which rather
speaks for itself. Despite the backslapping bonhomie that
such fun must inspire, it is difficult not to feel a little cynical
about these endeavours, and the question that one wants to
pose to the idea of ‘structured fun’ is: who is structuring the
fun and for what end? Such enforced fun is a form of com-
pulsory happiness, and it is tempting to see it as one further
sign of the ways in which employees’ private lives are being
increasingly regulated by the interests of their employers.

I was recently in Atlanta, staying at a huge hotel, and had
occasion to observe some structured fun from my breakfast
table one morning. In one of the vast, anonymous, carpeted,
windowless suites that pepper every large hotel in the USA,
about fifty people from the same company were engaged in
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collective hopscotch, frisbee and kickball. It was quite a
sight and much yelping and clapping was to be heard – the
very soundtrack to happiness, I pondered. But looking at
the sweating, slightly desperate faces of these mostly over-
weight grown-ups, one almost felt moved to tears. After break-
fast, I found a huddle of employees standing outside, reso-
lutely smoking in the Georgian January drizzle and we ex-

0 changed a few words. I was enormously reassured that they
— felt just as cynical about the whole business as I did, but
• one of them said that they didn’t want to appear to be a bad
D sport or a party pooper at work and that was why they went
2 along with it. Also, he concluded, they weren’t really offered
3 a choice. I think this incident is interesting for it reveals a

1 vitally subversive feature of humour in the workplace. Namely,
<D that as much as management consultants might try and
JE formalize fun for the benefit of the company, where the comic
• ; punch-line and the economic bottom line might be seen to
< j blend, such fun is always capable of being ridiculed by infor-

mal, unofficial relations amongst employees, by backchat
and salacious gossip. Anyone who has worked in a factory
or office knows how the most scurrilous and usually ob-
scene stories, songs and cartoons about the management
are the very bread and butter of survival. Humour might well
be a management tool but it is also a tool against the man-

Common and uncommon sense
Laughter is contagious – think about the phenomenon of

giggling, particularly when it concerns something obscene
in a context where one should be serious, such as listening
to a formal academic paper. In such cases, and I am sure
(or hope) that we all know them, the laughter can really hurt.
One might say that the simple telling of a joke recalls us to
what is shared in our everyday practices. It makes explicit
the enormous commonality that is implicit in our social life.
This is what the philosopher and aesthetician Shaftesbury
had in mind in the early 18th Century when he spoke of hu-
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mour as a form of sensus communis, common sense.10

So, humour reveals the depth of what we share. But, cru-
cially, it does this not through the clumsiness a theoretical
description, but more quietly, practically and discreetly.
Laughter suddenly breaks out in a bus queue, watching a
party political broadcast in a pub, or when someone farts in
a lift. Humour is an exemplary practice because it is a uni-
versal human activity that invites us to become philosophi- z !
cal spectators upon our lives. It is practically enacted theory. 5″
I think this is why Wittgenstein once said that he could * ”
imagine a book of philosophy that would be written entirely ^
in the form of jokes. £”

The extraordinary thing about humour is that it returns us 3
to common sense by distancing us from it, humour familiar- -3

izes us with a common world through its miniature strate- o
gies of defamiliarization. If humour recalls us to sensus com- §
munis, then it does this by momentarily pulling us out of •
common sense, where jokes function as moments of what ^
we might call dissensus communis, uncommon sense. At —•
its most powerful, say in those insanely punning dialogues
between Chico and Groucho Marx, humour is a paradoxical
form of speech and action that defeats our expectations,
producing laughter with its unexpected verbal inversions,
contortions and explosions. Let me close this ail-too theo-
retical essay with six practical examples:

1. ‘Do you believe in the life to come?’ ‘Mine was al-
ways that.’

2. ‘Have you lived in Blackpool all your life?’ ‘Not yet.’
3. ‘Do me a favour and close the window; it’s cold out-

side.’ ‘And if I close it, will that make it warm out-

4. ‘Do you want to use a pen?’ ‘I can’t write.’ That’s
OK, there wasn’t any ink in it anyway.’

5. ‘Which of the following is the odd one out? Greed,
envy, malice, anger and kindness.’ (Pause) ‘And.’
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6. ‘What’ll I say?’ Tell them you’re not here.’ ‘Suppose
they don’t believe me?’ They’ll believe you when you
start talking.’11

Simon Critchley is professor at the University of Essex
and his most recent publications are Continental Philoso-
phy. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2001) and On Hu-
mour (Routledge, 2002)

3 ‘ On Hu/77our(Routledge: London and New York, 2002).
O 2 Henri Bergson, Laughter (The Johns Hopkins University Press:
£ Baltimore, 1980), p.65.
=> 3 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, ed. G.H. Von Wright
^ (Blackwell: Oxford, 1980), p. 83.
^ ” 4 See Mary Douglas, ‘Do Dogs Laugh?’ and ‘Jokes’ from Implicit
2= Meanings. Essays in Anthropology (Routledge: London, 1975).
O 5 Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Penguin:
^ London, 1983), pp. 232-33.
U 6 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. J.C. Meredith

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952), pp. 196-203.
7 Philip Larkin, High Windows (London: Faber, 1974), p. 11.
8 Trevor Griffiths, Comedians (London: Faber, 1976), p. 20.
9 Douglas, Implicit Meanings, op.cit., p. 96.
10 Shaftesbury, Sensus Communis. An Essay on the Freedom of Wit

and Humour, in Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times,
Vol.1-2 (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964), p. 49.

11 From various Marx Brothers’ scripts, Peter Chelsom’s wonderful
1994 film Funny Bones, and Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (London: Faber,
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Identity Is an Inside Joke

Why you laugh with your friends.

By Zach St. George

Illustration by Robin Davey

November 26, 2015

I got one for you: It’s 1990, and there’s this group of 27 people who go to a six-week law

enforcement leadership course in Ottawa. The first day, the newly elected class president

announces that at the start of class each day, he wants someone to tell a joke. The president is

from Newfoundland, and so he leads by example—basically, a Newfoundlander finds a genie in

a bottle and is granted two wishes. His first wish is to be on a beach on Tahiti, which the genie

grants immediately. For his second wish, he says, “I don’t want to work no more.” Instantly, he

finds himself on the streets of Sydney, Nova Scotia, a town known among Canadians for its high

rate of unemployment. Everybody laughs. This is a pretty funny joke.

This is also a good move by the Newfie class president. These people come from different

cultures and different economic backgrounds. They have different religions, most but not all of

them are cops, most but not all of them are Canadian, and most but not all of them are male. The

Newfie joke does a couple things. First, it shows who he is. He’s a guy who can laugh at himself.

He’s not a prick. Second, it gives all these people from all these different backgrounds at least

one thing they can all laugh about. They’re all employed. The class starts to figure out who it is

one joke at a time.

“The judgment of whether something is funny or not is spontaneous, automatic, almost a

reflex,” writes Dutch sociologist Giselinde Kuipers. “Sense of humor thus lies very close to self-

image.” Humor also takes on the shape of the teller’s surroundings: age, gender, class, and clan.

Shared humor implies shared identity, shared ways of confronting reality. When we don’t get a

joke, we feel left out; when we get a joke, or better yet, tell the joke that everyone roars at, we

belong. “If you’re both laughing, it means you see the world in the same way,” says Peter

McGraw, psychologist and co-author of The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes

Things Funny.

In the gamut of humor, from the offensive to the simply dull, we find the boundaries of our own

group. We’re bounded by things we don’t find funny. McGraw calls the meat in this unfunny

sandwich “benign violation,” or “things that are wrong yet okay, things that make sense yet don’t

make sense.” On the one side is humor that doesn’t go far enough. Consider the purported

“world’s funniest joke”: Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He

doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are rolled back into his head. The other guy whips out

his phone and calls 911. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says “Calm

down. I can help. First, let’s make sure that he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard.

Back on the phone, the guy says, “OK, now what?”

British scientist Richard Wiseman discovered this funniest joke by soliciting jokes online, and

then asking which ones were funniest. In one year, people gave almost 2 million reviews, and

submitted more than 40,000 jokes of their own. You’d think in a pool that big there would be

something funnier. But cognitive neuroscientist Scott Weems points out that Wiseman’s study

was pinched in a couple ways. The main problem was that Wiseman rejected a lot of jokes that

he deemed too dirty, sexist, or racist to distribute under his name. In the end, Weems writes in

his book Ha: The Science of When We Laugh and Why, the 911 joke got the most votes because

it was well shy of what he calls the “provocation threshold”—social and moral boundaries. It

offends nobody, but it also doesn’t particularly impress most people. It wouldn’t have done much

good in the law enforcement course.

On the other side of McGraw’s benign violation are the things that violate and fail at being

harmless. At the end of the second week of class, an instructor in the course gets up and tells this

joke: someone calls a lawyer’s office, and he gets the secretary. The secretary tells him that the

lawyer’s dead. They hang up. A second later, this person calls again, asking for the lawyer.

Again, the secretary tells him that the lawyer is dead. Then he calls again. Finally, the secretary

asks the caller why he keeps calling when he already knows the lawyer’s dead. The caller says,

“I just like to hear you say it!” Only two people laugh, and then there is a silent moment.

The guy’s delivery isn’t good, notes Jenepher Lennox-Terrion, a doctoral candidate in

communications sitting at the back of the class. That’s the first problem. Second, the joke relies

on an assumed common hatred of lawyers that may or may not exist. Third, one of the members

of class, along with being a cop, is a lawyer. The real problem here is the relative standing of the

lawyer-cop and the joke-teller: The lawyer-cop is well known in class, and is well liked, while

the instructor is new, and is not. “Insiders, who share a common social identity, can often take

liberties that others cannot,” Lennox Terrion explains. “When someone from outside puts down a

high status, well-liked member, that won’t be well-received.” You have to know your audience.

The instructor, in thinking himself part of the group, has misjudged his own identity.

In her book Good Humor, Bad Taste: Sociology of a Joke, Kuipers investigates a specific kind of

humor, of the type also favored by the Canadian cops: the short humorous anecdote leading to a

punchline. This type of joke is popular in the Netherlands. There’s even a special word in Dutch

for the genre—mop—and there was a popular TV show, Moppentoppers, where contestants

competed to tell the best joke. It’s also a type of humor specific to a certain type of person; if you

know somebody likes moppen, you could make some specific inferences about them (and their

friends). Kuipers’ research supported the anecdotal evidence, which was that men like the

moppen more than women, and that among these men, the less educated they were, the more

they liked them. Although the Dutch tend to believe they live in a classless society, Kuipers

writes that her interviews with dozens of self-identified moppentoppers made clear to her the

depth of the cultural divide, as well as her place on one side of it.

“If I told the interviewees that the educated, like my university colleagues, didn’t tell many

[moppen], they were quite surprised,” Kuipers writes. “They derived from this that university

employees didn’t like humor or that they were boring and serious.” As one 49-year-old janitor

told her, “Maybe laughing a bit more would do them good.” Her highly educated colleagues

were equally bewildered by the moppentoppers. “If I run into someone at a party who’s really

into jokes, then I try to escape,” a 40-year-old marketing researcher told her. “There’s no way

you can have a conversation with somebody like that.”

Kuipers isn’t exempt from these boundaries. She struggles to talk to the moppentoppers; they, in

turn, don’t want to share their jokes with her. “I had to go to great lengths to convince people

that I was hard enough to hear certain jokes,” she writes. The jokes reflect an identity that

Kuipers doesn’t share, both as an academic and as a woman. The moppen are usually told in a

like-minded group. Recited to a solitary outsider, they lose context, even becoming embarrassing

to the moppentoppers; it is painful to tell a joke knowing that it won’t be funny. “The interviews

had a very specific tinge: older men telling dirty jokes to a much younger woman,” she says.

“Sometimes that was awkward for both parties.”

Jokes throw the boundaries of perceived gender identities, in particular, into sharp relief. In his

well-known 2007 column, “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” late Vanity Fair columnist and

provocateur Christopher Hitchens asks, “Why are men, taken on average and as a whole, funnier

than women?” The explanation, he posits, is basically that men are attracted to women’s bodies,

and therefore, evolutionarily, women didn’t need to develop as good a sense of humor as men,

who have to rely on their wit alone to get laid. In the following months, many women wrote in to

point out the false assumption behind Hitchens’ argument—that his sense of humor was

somehow broadly representative of both men and women in general. As Robin Schiff of Los

Angeles explained in a letter to the editor, “We are funny—but only behind your backs! […]”

Hitchens, she’s saying, isn’t in the club.

In other words, humor isn’t just about the joke. There’s an audience, too. The supposed un-

funniness of women should be seen as a symptom of a male-centric society, writes Rebecca

Krefting, which is why many publicly funny women employ what she calls “charged humor.”

This humor carries a message, meant to change perceptions by knowingly pushing the

boundaries of one or more dominant groups. “Despite collective desire to imagine we have

achieved gender parity, charged humor and our consumption of it (or not) give us away,”

Krefting writes in her book All Joking Aside: American Humor and Its Discontents. But you

have to make it with the audience before you tell them off. Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, and

Aziz Ansari all use charged humor, but also hit themes that are broad enough to catch many

people in the benign-violation sweet spot. “It’s a careful dance that comics have to do,” Krefting

says, “where they’ve already earned the respect of their audience, that they’re not going to lose

them along the way.”

The gender role narrative as told by jokes is eminently adaptable to specific audiences. In one

study, Limor Shifman, an Israeli professor of communication, followed a certain type of English-

language joke in which men and women are like computers. They have names like “girlfriend

3.4” and “boyfriend 5.0,” and then they get upgraded to “husband 1.0” and “wife 1.0.” The set-

up is that someone is trying to troubleshoot all the bad stuff that came with the upgrade—“the

new program began unexpected child processing,” “wife 1.0 installed itself onto all other

programs and now monitors all other system activity,” and “husband 1.0 uninstalled romance

9.5.” Sometimes the jokes are from the man’s point of view, sometimes from the woman’s but

they basically riff on the simplest stereotypes—men like sports and don’t like feelings and

women like shopping and do like feelings.

Shifman gathered as many instances of these types of jokes as she could find on the Internet. She

then picked several hundred of these at random and sorted them into a list of the basic variations

on the form. She translated the key bits of these jokes into the nine most popular languages on

the Internet, after English: Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, French, German, Portuguese, Arabic,

Korean, and Italian. Using these translations, she searched again, and came up with hundreds or

thousands of URLs containing jokes of this type. As these jokes spread across the Internet and

are translated, she found, they are transformed. In Japan, the jokes are overwhelmingly on the

wives, while in Korea they’re largely on the husbands. In Portuguese, the jokes become more

sexually explicit. In Chinese, a mother-in-law is often thrown into the mix. “People need to

localize the joke,” Shifman says. “They don’t only translate it, they add those local spices to

make it their own.”

When jokes can’t be un-localized, they fail. In a second study, when Shifman started with 100

popular English-language (mostly American) jokes, she found far more of them on websites with

languages spoken in Europe or the Americas. She found few of them on Chinese and Arabic

websites, and even fewer on Japanese and Korean websites—the greater the geographical,

cultural, and linguistic distance from the United States, the more the jokes seem to defy

translation. Jokes about American politics and American regional differences—jokes about a

specific identity—don’t do well abroad.

Jokes that are popular globally, by contrast, hewed to broad themes, namely money and gender

stereotypes; wife 1.0 goes shopping, it seems, is something everyone can laugh at. But there’s

also something stale about that kind of joke. To reach the lowest common denominator, it needs

to distance itself from specific identities, and loses much of its humor. Like Wisemans’ “world’s

funniest,” or the kind of gag you often find in Garfield, Guinness World Record holder for the

world’s most widely syndicated comic strip. There was a classic Garfield in the newspaper this

weekend: Jon and Garfield are at the counter, and there’s a buzzing noise coming from Jon’s

pocket. “That’s just my phone,” he says. “I have it set on ‘vibrate.’ ” But wait! “Isn’t that your

phone?” says Garfield. The angle widens, and indeed, there is Jon’s phone on the counter beside

Garfield. Jon’s eyes get big, and he runs screaming off-panel. “Aren’t you going to answer your

bee?” Garfield says.


It’s the beginning of the third week at officer training class and everyone’s really good buddies

by now. They’re taking courses on how to talk to the media, on project management, on

presentation skills and leadership techniques, as well as things like social etiquette and table

manners. It’s the start of class, and a member of class gets up, and he tells a joke about a dream

he had—“I was speaking to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, and he told me that if I wanted to come

in there’s some things I’d have to do. He said, ‘To pay your penance, you’re going to have to

spend your life in heaven with this woman,’ and out of this cave came the worst looking hag

you’ve ever seen. St. Peter pointed to her and said, ‘Latch onto her son, she’s yours.’ Then I saw

[another member of the class] walking along with the most beautiful woman on his arm, so I

went over to St. Peter and said, ‘Hey, what’s the score? I know [said member of class] is a lady’s

man [aside to the class: ‘He is you know’], but how come he got her and I got this hag?’ And St.

Peter responded, ‘Hey, she’s got to pay her penance too, you know.” The class starts laughing,

really laughing, and then it breaks into applause.

This is the best reception any joke has gotten so far. It’s also the first time the person telling the

pre-class joke has actually named another member of the class and made them the butt of the

joke. As Kuipers writes in a collection of essays about the 2006 riots over Dutch cartoons

depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad, “Humor and laughter are directly connected with the

drawing of social boundaries: laughing at someone is among the strongest markers of social

exclusion in human connection.” But ridicule can actually reinforce a group when the target is

confident in their in-group status. In laughing along, the target of the joke shows that he’s a good

sport, thereby completing the ritual. By laughing together at each other and at themselves, the

students show their membership. “Well-liked leaders tend to be most picked on,” Lennox

Terrion says. “If someone considered weaker status was picked on, that wouldn’t have been

funny. It didn’t really happen.”

The buddy-buddy put-downs started in the first minutes of class, even before the class

president’s Newfie joke, when the course director, by way of welcoming the female officer,

called the two male officers she was sitting next to ugly. All of them laughed. On the third day,

someone not from Newfoundland made a Newfie joke, both reaffirming the class president’s

ability to laugh at himself and legitimizing Newfoundland jokes as a consistent hit. Things

developed from there. “The second week appeared to mark the beginning of more ‘uninvited’

direct putdowns,” notes Lennox-Terrion. These putdowns focus “on the backgrounds and

imputed traits and motives of individuals.” The cops begin to banter, and from banter grows

friendship. Bit by bit, the boundaries are pushed farther out, and as they do, a common identity


In the fourth week, one of the pre-class jokes, about a blind lumberyard assistant, is dirty and

seems to violate the group norm of not making fun of potentially stigmatizing attributes (which,

in the context of the male-dominated class, included being female). The joke is sexist and

inappropriate for the classroom, as several of the class members later tell Terrion in private

interviews. But the class bursts out laughing, shouting, howling, slapping the table. The guy who

told the joke knows he doesn’t have to worry. It’s four weeks in and the class members know

each other well by now. The joke is a small violation, deeper into offensive territory than

previous jokes, but is treated as harmless. Students request it be retold twice more over the

course of the class.

The group’s sense of humor became its defining feature, says Lennox Terrion, a feature

cultivated right to the end. A few days before the class members graduated, they had a fancy

dinner together. They showed up looking nice, ready to put their new skills at the dining room to

the test. Later that night, she says, many of them would get screaming drunk. The next morning

they’d each give presentations on one aspect of what they’d learned. Soon after that, they’d all

go their separate ways. There was a lot of hugging, Lennox Terrion says, a feeling of euphoria

that reminds her of picking her kids from summer camp—“ ‘You’re my best friend forever!’

Even though you don’t necessarily follow up after that.” At their request, she gave a speech

during the dinner, although she says she can’t remember what it was about. It was well received,

but was overshadowed when, right after, somebody stood up to tell a joke.

Zach St. George is a freelance reporter based in California, writing about science and the

environment. Follow him on Twitter @ZachStGeorge.

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