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Humour across cultures: no laughing matter

Lisa Fraser warns of the pitfalls in jokes that don’t travel well.

The English comedian Bob Monkhouse once quipped: “When I first said I was going to become a comedian, everybody laughed. Well, they’re not laughing now!” 

The same happened to me when writing this article: I was keen to write about a light topic which I could share broadly and make people laugh … Then I realised how serious laughter can be!

The first time I really started considering humour as a subtle art was when I moved abroad. After a few weeks, I noticed that my French sense of humour was too dark and corrosive for English tastes. Some replies I found witty and well-delivered were deemed too aggressive. As I noticed that there were more restraints in this new country, I concluded it was safer to stop joking until I understood better the etiquette!

French comedian Pierre Desproges summed up this experience: “One can laugh about anything, but not with everyone.” For instance, the best way to kill a joke is to tell it to someone who isn’t a native speaker. Top tip: don’t tell a joke about an empty thesaurus leaving you speechless unless you are sure that your interlocutor knows what a thesaurus is.

Beyond language: we shouldn’t underestimate how much we’re the product of a specific culture and time. That ‘package’ includes words, brands, TV programmes, childhood heroes, famous actors, songs … the list is endless. Cultural references can still be easily lost on someone, even though they’ve lived in a country for a decade.

Most schools teach foreign languages, and these classes often cover etiquette. I remember learning (while living at home in France) how I should behave were I ever meet the Queen of England. Yet, I wasn’t told that my French sense of humour could shock an English audience. 

Some universities teach gelotology, the study of laughter. However, it is mostly addressed in psychology and medical departments, where students are encouraged to explore the impact of laughter on health and well-being. Few degrees offer the option to study laughter as a cultural experience in itself.


Yet, while many people interact with foreign colleagues and clients on a regular basis, I’ve rarely heard of companies training their employees how to crack a good joke with overseas clients.


This raises the question as to why we use humour in the first place. The temptation would be to limit laughter to entertainment purposes only. Surely, humour helps alleviate boredom and loneliness – the rise of comedy channels on YouTube demonstrates that need. In this sense, laughter can also be a healthy coping mechanism: it provides relief for tough situations and feelings. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, filmed during World War II, is a great example of this. 

We can divide humour into various sub-types. This first type of humour is about group dynamics.

Laughing releases oxytocin, also called the ‘empathy hormone’ or the ‘bonding chemical’. Thus, humour has been associated for centuries with group dynamics. One can laugh with peers as a way to bond and feel like an insider: it’s known as affiliative humour.

On the contrary, one can laugh against another group, to bond against a common enemy: exclusionary humour can be misogynist, nationalistic, racist, or ageist, for instance. It was common when I grew up to make jokes about blonde women (the myth being that there was some kind of link between female glamour and dumbness). Retrospectively, I see how such jokes could be harmful, but we told them almost innocently, as a way to befriend other children. 

This second type of humour reveals how we relate to others – for instance, if we are collaborative or confrontational.

A third variant of humour shows how we relate to ourselves. In assertive cultures (think of Latin countries) humour is often self-enhancing: the jokes make us look witty, expert; they impress others. To some extent, laughing at one’s own jokes here can be acceptable.


Other cultures, like Celtic, Confucian or Japanese ones, are more self-deprecating: humbling oneself is admitted, if not valued. 


The etiquette would recommend not laughing at one’s own jokes, not praising one’s own  sense of humour, and, if possible, avoiding monopolising the spotlight for too long.

How we relate to our body can also impact the content of our jokes. For instance, apparently, Europeans in Antiquity and the Middle Ages loved toilet humour and jokes about sex. These days, one needs to know an interlocutor well before attempting this type of joke (if at all). In extreme cases, it could put an end to a relationship as some cultures find it too cringeworthy if not downright vulgar.

While the first type of humour (group dynamics humour) is inherent to our human nature – we need to laugh about how we relate to other groups – the second and third types (humour in relation to others, and humour in relation to self) are heavily influenced by the culture we grew up in. For instance, individualistic and hierarchical societies might be more comfortable laughing at someone compared to collectivist cultures.

Knowing the audience is also essential to avoid projecting a false image of oneself (and of one’s culture!). For instance, a Latin-culture joke might sound boastful to a Chinese listener. An English joke might (involuntarily) fill a Latin with pity – your interlocutor might be tempted to reply to your joke with compliments and other ways to boost your apparently sagging self-esteem!

There is also the question of who can crack the joke, which touches on the issue of legitimacy: who is seen as legitimate in society? Inclusive and flat cultures seem to be more inclined to let people give it a try and tell a joke. For instance, with friends from Denmark and the Netherlands, I have noticed that it’s not uncommon to hear a child attempt a pun in an adult discussion: the etiquette allows it. 

On the other end of the spectrum, in groups with a hierarchical structure, the leaders are likely to supervise the sense of humour within the group. In the Middle-Ages, lords and kings delegated entertainment (including the right to crack jokes) to court jesters, fools or jokers. In modern hierarchical societies, the most senior people in the room are likely to take responsibility for setting the tone.

Alternatively, legitimacy can come from expertise. The comedy show The Big Bang Theory illustrates how humour is a serious matter: there are thousands of online criticisms by angry fans complaining about some of the scientific jokes which were not deemed rigorous enough. 

This show was what I would call ‘Marmite TV’: it lasted for 12 seasons, but it was equally loved and hated throughout the world for being elitist and non-inclusive. Most jokes were only accessible to people with a solid science education and knowledge of niche Western pop culture references, de facto making it inaccessible to some minorities. Clearly, the longevity of the series proved that inclusive humour is not seen as a universal moral duty – or a necessary recipe for economic success.


There is so much uncertainty around the success of jokes, that some cultures see humour as very much a private matter.


For instance, Japanese natives would tend to tell their jokes privately, to avoid any embarrassment for them and for their audience.

In other cultures where risk-taking is valued, such as the US, standing up to crack a joke to a broad audience – even if there’s a risk it will fall flat –  is acceptable. Who hasn’t seen spectators cringe, or be filled with horror, when a stand-up comedian shares their most personal details in front of a large crowd?

Knowing which topics are appropriate as jokes is an essential communication skill. What can we laugh about words, situations, and people? Where do we draw the line between fun – politically incorrect but witty – and downright cruel or disrespectful humour?

Liberal societies, in Western Europe or North America, tend to be more open to jokes questioning the status quo and moral values. More conservative societies, especially in Africa and Asia, are not always comfortable with jokes about traditions and ancestors. 

Across cultures and countries, attempting jokes about religion is risky. The most extreme example of this danger was the Charlie Hebdo shooting in 2015, targeting cartoonists in Paris who repeatedly mocked religious figures. Here, jokes badly taken by others literally cost the authors their lives. 

Some topics are off-limits for some people: without judging whether it should be so or not (that’s the topic for another article), one should be aware of cultural taboos, and carefully weigh pros and cons before challenging the religious and moral norms.

The same applies to ethnicity. Making fun of another ethnic group can be acceptable in a specific country, but the risk is that it serves a broader political agenda, in addition to being detrimental to the other group. An ethnic joke can make people laugh … but does it make the joke acceptable? Whether we’re conscious of it or not, humour can be politicised, and leveraged for broader power plays.

In France, the generation of my grandparents were often heard making jokes about former colonial countries, or about the physical features of people living in different continents. These jokes were the remnants of a colonial past and my grandparents were not aware they were fuelling (harmful) myths about other cultures. Such jokes would be completely unacceptable these days, out of respect for diversity, sovereignty and the dignity of other peoples. 


Jokes bear the stigma of their time and sense of humour evolves from one generation to another.


This topic was discussed recently in the media, when the Gen Z rediscovered TV series like Friends: these made us laugh in the 90s but nowadays they can be regarded by some as homophobic, sexist or racist.

Canadian friends have told me jokes about their American neighbours which left me speechless. My friends considered both countries as equals, so these jokes were not about domination and contempt. Yet, where does the joke end and disrespect start …?

The more we think about something apparently as simple as a joke, the more complex it becomes! However, not reflecting on the type of jokes we make can lead to faux-pas, and in extreme cases, it can lead to relationship breakdowns. In the TV sitcom My Wife and Kids, Michael’s marriage comes under threat because he makes a series of awkward jokes about Jay’s weight… 

Of course there is also a risk of overthinking our jokes. Most of the time, they should stimulate immediate fun and the magic is lost if we start explaining. Teaching humour at school to encourage bonding between cultures, for instance, would be challenging and probably not particularly funny.

We cannot force someone to find our jokes funny. Sometimes, we will need to refrain from cracking a joke for the sake of the relationship. Perhaps some people will never experience how hilarious we are! They’ll explore other sides of our personality, while more like-minded people will enjoy our wit and fun.

Yet, education (whether it’s at school, at home, or through cultural events) can raise awareness of taboos, cultural diversity, and communication styles. This would help build more harmonious relationships at work or in our social lives. This has become even more essential in our modern multicultural societies.

Ultimately, I trust that even within these boundaries we will find ways to laugh because, as the Renaissance French writer Rabelais put it: “Laughter makes people human”.

Now, did you hear the one about the Scotsman, the Englishman and the Irishman who went into a pub to order a pint of beer …?

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Lisa Fraser is a writer for Adamah Media. She has worked as a political Special Adviser, in lobbying and as a consultant, before joining the Civil Service. She loves having long walks, visual arts, and reading books about history and politics.

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