Humor Among Different Cultures

Yesterday, I was reading a good blog post by reader “Johnl” who has lived in Japan for 30 years. The article is about the importance of fashion and image in Japan (and why it matters), but it also talked about the differences between Japanese and American humor.

John writes:

Early on, I noticed that Japanese people do not react to sarcasm. Much of my sense of humor relies on sarcasm, but they just didn’t get my jokes. I have come to believe that the intentions implied by speech are not trivial.

I noticed this same thing. Sarcastic jokes don’t seem to work. Japanese people didn’t seem to really notice the sarcasm. If I joke in English, they understood the joke, but if I tried in Japanese people would often take me literally. Being American, sarcastic jokes are very common but I slowly realized that it doesn’t always work in other cultures.

But it’s not just Japanese/American culture. For example, when I lived in Ireland, I found the same thing: sarcastic jokes were not common. Instead, Irish humor was more subtle and witty. Friends and co-workers would say something subtle and clever, just a few words, but I often missed the joke until too late. When my Irish friends were drunk, and slip into really Irish-English, it was hard for me to follow the conversation sometimes. There were many subtle jokes I missed. ;-)

In the same way, I noticed that Japanese jokes tend to state the obvious. Someone is doing something kind of silly, but no one says anything. Then, someone breaks the ice, states what they’re doing and thinking, and everyone has a good laugh. It’s hard to explain, but it makes sense in the context. Plus, I noticed Japanese love puns or oyaji gyagu (“Old man gags”) a lot too.

Interesting how people enjoy humor, but different cultures have different ways to express it.

P.S. Read Johnl’s article if you can. :-)

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About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.
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5 Responses to Humor Among Different Cultures

  1. eksith says:

    This is almost exactly the same in Sri Lanka. It’s most definitely a cultural thing as we fellow ex-pats use sarcasm in Sinhalese with each other all the time. However, if we tried the same there, we’ll get some odd stares. The humor definitely needs to be obvious (preferably accompanied by sound effects).

    They’re fully capable of getting sarcasm as evidenced by the fact that English poses no barrier to the joke. But I think they turn off the sarcasm portion of the brain when the native language starts as it’s not something expected in that vein.

    I’ve faced something similar (as I’m sure you have) when it comes to computers. People automatically assume their common sense is not applicable and turn off their technical brain. But a folder is still a folder, a file is still a file and a window will still let you see things through them. Things don’t become completely alien just because they’re now virtually represented and have menus.

    The swap in the delivery seems to completely change the perception.

    Humans are weird creatures ;)

  2. aussie in Japan says:

    have had the sam trouble here. have even lost friends because they didn’t get it. have to be careful. makes life a little bit dull when you can’t joke like you are used to doing.

  3. Doug says:

    Hi eksith, good to hear from you. Yeah, I think the lesson I learned is that each language has its own way of expressing humor that just doesn’t translate easily into other languages.

  4. johnl says:

    Hey Doug! Thanks for the mention–I got a little bump of volume thanks to you ! :)

  5. Doug says:

    Happy to help. :-)

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