They say that laughter is universal. That laughter exists innately in every race and in every culture. Physically tickle a baby anywhere in the world and that baby laughs, even before that baby has learned to speak. Other primate species laugh when physically tickled.
But that’s the primate response to physical tickling, to play, which builds social bonds. Homo sapiens has the unique ability to laugh at thoughts, words, and scenes. Where does that come from? And is it as universal as the laughter from physical tickling, from play?
That thought, word, or scene that we laugh at we call humor in the English language. There are many theories about how we developed this ability. My theory is that it developed as a means of deriving the same social bonding without having to engage in the play. Kind of a shorthand for tickling and play.
And it seems that humor is present everywhere in the world and in every culture, but that it is not nearly universal. Humor has a high degree of cultural dependency as well as language dependency, and is used for different purposes in different cultures. So the joke that I make here in North America would probably not do well in another culture.
My friends and I did share a good belly laugh the other day. However, the cause was a rather crude reference about an American politician’s reaction to those seeking his favor. The favor seeking was expressed euphemistically as a sexual act, the reaction as him thinking a part of his anatomy tasted good. I’ll leave it at that and hope no one is offended.
It went over well here because we all knew the politician, the euphemism, and because here in the U.S. our humor tends to be more sexually explicit and also more deprecatory. If I told that same joke to my German colleagues I don’t think it would have met with the same response. There are some cultures where telling the same joke might have gotten me locked up.
So, as we share what last made us belly laugh, we should also remember that what’s funny to us may, at best, be unintelligible to another reader in another culture, and at worst, might even be offensive. “Come on, it’s just a joke” might not be enough.
Image courtesy of Nambassa Trust and Peter Terry