Failed Humor Begets Violence?

I read this article on last week: Telling Bad Jokes Invokes Hostility, Violence. It prompted me to reflect upon my struggles with humor in foreign languages, and in English too.

Random observations:

– The more familiar I am with the people I am with, the funnier I am. Thus, in my nuclear family I am a comedic superstar, while at work or when meeting people for the first time, not so much. Other friends fall somewhere in the middle.
– I never got very fluent in Spanish (and I’m definitely not at my high point now), but I never felt it was very hard to make jokes in Spanish. In general, the humor translated well across the cultural gap.
– It was verrry difficult to be funny in Japanese. Granted, I only lived in Japan for a year, so I wasn’t super fluent, but I repeatedly made efforts to be funny in conversations with friends, and I crashed and burned a lot. My homestay brothers mocked my failed attempts rather mercilessly. (Their cries of “さぶっ!” still haunt me.)
– It was kind of hard to make jokes in Chinese, but I never felt as much pressure to be witty as I did in Japanese. Furthermore, failed humor tends to result in confusion or non-comprehension rather than mockery.
– Even when I make a bad joke in Chinese, rarely does anyone call me on it. The exception, of course, is my wife (one of the funniest people I know), who dutifully reminds me that in Chinese, I am not very funny.

Based on my experiences, it seems like familiarity raises the stakes in humor. When you tell a joke to someone you’re close to, you either score big, or you lose big. And losing big can mean violence (according to the study)?

But I’m guessing that’s pretty cultural. I’m not at all surprised that it’s hard to be funny in France. This is a great quote from the article:

> “I may have been Nancy funny, but I was not French-speaking-Nancy funny,” she said.

I’m curious if any readers have had “violent” reactions to bad jokes in Asia.

Related: When Humor Runs Aground, Dumb Joke [on ChinesePod]


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. The key to mastering humor in Japanese is the ボケ and ツッコミ.

  2. In France, most of the humor is not that much regional as regional culture is not so different from national culture (thanks to centralization). But there’s a big gap between generations (like in most western countries).
    If you’re funny among young people, you may not be funny among adults or older people.

  3. Fortunately, I have had good luck with humor in Taiwan, Thailand and especially in The Philippines. Maybe the people there may be less critical. I’m not sure. But I also know that timing is very important. I prefer to stick to irony though when I use humor. For me that works best.

    I think being funny in Japan and Korea takes copius amounts of alcohol… and I know that doesn’t seem to be a problem for your social outings.

    Take Care Alway!
    Greg Pasden, The World Traveler

  4. Chileans have a unique sense of humor. Even other Latinos find their jokes to be pretty weird. After about a six months of being in Chile I learned to be as intentionally funny as I ever was in English. After speaking almost nothing but Spanish for a year and a half I came back to the States and had no trouble speaking in English but I couldn’t be funny to save my life. If Chilean humor doesn’t usually go over too well with other Latinos it’s certainly not going to go far in English with Americans. Although I did get a few blank stares I never provoked any violence while I was relearning humor.

  5. I never had any trouble being funny in Sichuan. I think all I did was be sarcastic.

  6. you might not be a comedic superstar outside of your nuclear family, but just be glad you aren’t German.

  7. Could be even worse : he could be SWISS-German … I’m from the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and even if we can notice a slightly big difference between the French humor and the Swiss-French humor, there’s a HUGE gap between Swiss-German humor and ours … Problem is that national TV spots are quite often made in Zurich in Swiss-German, and then translated into French in order to be broadcasted over here. Man … sometimes it’s even funny because it doesn’t mean anything in French … But even when the translation is correct, I mean … the humor is SO bad …


  8. My focus right now is not on trying to be funny. I’m sure that will come with time, even if it is only within my inner circle of friends, as you say.

    Right now my biggest struggle is listening to the jokes said around a banquet table, comprehending them, and then finding the humor. Maybe it’s just because many of the jokes I hear come from the mouth of highly drunk individuals.

    Am I just slow or have other people had this same difficulty?

  9. My experience with humor in Chinese mostly consisted of groaning when I heard what utterly lame jokes I was told… but then again as my fluency wasn’t great it’s likely I was mostly told children’s jokes. As for my trying to be funny, it was usually hit and miss with the irony and sarcasm I’m so fond of. I also like using 吃豆腐 in puns when discussing food, but that usually generates a round of groans from the people around me.

  10. Just realized that not everyone will understand that last bit, 吃豆腐 means both “to eat tofu” and “to flirt”.

  11. i am completely unfunny in arabic. the chinese people around me (at least lately) think im pretty funny, but more that i know odd slang in chinese than any particular jokes i’m telling. probably they’re laughing at, not with.

    i recently did a quick stupid magic trick for some people with terrible results. while they just stared, it did elicit some strong feelings of self-violence. does that count?

  12. Ji Feng Jing Cao Says: September 4, 2008 at 10:52 pm

    Good topic, John.

    I’ve all but given up on attempting to be funny in English now for I’ve realised you can never be nearly as funny in your second language as in your mother tongue. And it seems like the funnier you are in your own language, the more difficult it gets when speaking another language, ’cause you’re so skillful with your own language that your humour is largely based upon your linguistic ability, i.e. your thorough understanding and complete control of the different aspects of your speech. When you’re speaking another language, all of that is gone and pretty much the best you can do is formulated forms of being funny, e.g sarcasm, irony and set jokes. No witty comments or swift comebacks. No cultural references. No improvised impersonations, etc.

    It’s so frustrating when I hang out with my English friends I’m quiet most of the time ’cause I know if we were all speaking Chinese, I would have them all in stitches the whole evening like I do to my Chinese friends(I’ve been officially banned from talking over the dinner table ’cause I constantly put everyone in danger of choking on their food).

    I’m glad I’m not the only struggling with this. See you’re an English speaker living in China and I’m a Mandarin speaker living in England. That makes us on either side of the coin, but in fact we’re both living on the very same side. Hmm…

    P.S: that last bit was another attempt of mine at being funny. Didn’t realise, did you? See? I told ya!

  13. Greg,

    It’s great when you can adjust your humor for cross-cultural communication, but the challenge I’m referring to is humor in a foreign language.

  14. Ryan,

    Ha, that’s great… the Chileans “sabotaged” your sense of humor. 🙂

  15. Tora,

    Yeah, it never ceases to amaze me the extent to which the 吃豆腐 joke is recycled. I think it’s partly singled out by the Chinese as a “joke with the foreigner” special, though.

  16. Ji Feng Jing Cao,

    And it seems like the funnier you are in your own language, the more difficult it gets when speaking another language, ’cause you’re so skillful with your own language that your humour is largely based upon your linguistic ability, i.e. your thorough understanding and complete control of the different aspects of your speech.

    Nice observation! Yeah, it definitely makes sense to me.

    (And no, your final joke was not instantly identifiable as a joke to me… hehe)

  17. I’ve got some jokes I use over and over in class that seem to go over well. They’re mostly about my stumbling through learning Chinese and making ‘funny’ mistakes. (They love that)
    For example, “Chinese is so weird! You can say 我吃了她的豆腐然后她炒了我的鱿鱼. I ate her tofu and then she fried my squid, being I groped her and then she fired me.” Good stuff.

    I did one time try a class explaining and trying knock-knock jokes. I got a room full of blank stares followed by what resembled some serious spite. I’m sure there were a few violent thoughts floating around there somewhere.

  18. I think I first became aware of the phrase “吃豆腐” around the time “Kung Fu Dunk” came out. Most of my Chinese jokes have involved foreigners and puns. I don’t think my teacher found them particularly funny, though. Maybe I shouldn’t try to joke so much.

    I haven’t really had any trouble being funny in Spanish, either, but I’m fluent. My first Spanish joke involved a car that said “Amigo” on the back and was about money buying friends.

    It’s definitely true that your family would find you funnier. My family is very much into science fiction, so our jokes would seem too geeky for most other families! We were talking about a report on the news about a college art teacher doing drugs once, for example, and I said, “Maybe he was just trying to paint the future!”

  19. Hi John,

    Chinese people are very humorous, and so is Chinese language. You can find a great number of humorous and hilarious sayings in Chinese. I have a 汉语俗语词典, and it’s more a joke book than a dictionary.

    Chinese natives are very skilled in making small talk, using a lot of humorous 俗语, 歇后语 and even 成语, which is NOT the conversation we foreign learners can easily join, perhaps except for 大山.

    As for the word “さぶっ” you “often” heard in Japan, it’s a kind of a “rescue” word for Japanese people, mainly used among close friends. Young Japanese think saying “さぶっ” is much better than AWKWARD SILENCE you generate!

  20. John
    别谦虚。you’re “funny”.
    I remember the “joke”you said in office: 他俩是男女关系!(background: he’s talking about two characters in a Chinesepod lesson)

  21. I’ve been something of a punster since my youth. Since learning Chinese, I’ve found that given the number of homophones, punning in Chinese is like shooting fish in a barrel. One gets about the same tepid response for Chinese puns among Chinese speakers as for English puns among English speakers, however.

  22. I guess in Germany the prevalent form of humour is sarcastic, indirect, and often bordering at the absurd – one that makes you smirk rather than laugh out loud. It can also be pretty funny offending and easily include hefty sexual references.

    The Chinese humour I experienced so far, is the absolute opposite. Very, very tame, focussing mostly on harmless puns. The South Part or even the Titanic style is definately out of reach. Joke-wise, I found that I can get my wife entertained best with the stuff I learned during my earlier childhood.

    From the little I can observe from here, this changes. Chinese become more daring, even including some (still very soft) innuendo into their jokes…

  23. I’ve found the most laughter from when I mispronounce something or get two characters wrong. Once, when discussing my old hobby of riding my bike around, I said “我每次出门都会带安全套,因为都不知道会发生什么事!“ Awkward laughter, then I learned how to properly say “helmet”.

  24. In my Chinese 101 class we had to create a chinese language skit. Mine revolved around a waiter, some soup and a table full of people who were trying to determine whose mother that soup belonged to. Lots of “zhe shi ta ma de”, “wo ma de? bu shi… shi ni ma de”, etc., etc. flying back and forth. Probably pretty basic and only funny coming from newbie chinese speakers but the teacher fell out of her chair laughing.

  25. “Comedic superstar in your nuclear family.”? Does that include Newton?

  26. Humor. In China that is tough. Stuff I find funny, Chinese don’t. Stuff Chinese find funny… I don’t get. Sometimes it’s frustrating. I want DEAR AMBER to talk about “WHAT DO CHINESE FIND FUNNY?” on her next Dear Amber show…
    I found with students and adults, the humor in China is sometimes all about language, culture and or something really really old. I continue to try and find joke books in both ENglish and Chinese… but they’re not THAT funny…
    I have put together some fun comics that might help in understanding about humor. The comics are both in Chinese and English… and they are pretty funny! Check them out!

  27. I’ve had great success with my “Why is six afraid of seven?” joke. Then again, I teach English to 10 year-olds.

    (It’s because seven ate nine)

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