Getting a “Sense” of Humor

Humor is a funny little thing that humans have shared for what seems like all of human existence. It appears that laughter is something that is as necessary in life as breathing; one of the very unique things to the human species (aside from perhaps some species of monkeys). It always made me wonder what it was that made us laugh and made us feel the need to be funny? Perhaps it is just engraved within a desire to fit in and be accepted. Or perhaps, because humor is something that all of mankind shares, it is the one link we truly have to one another. Humor is one of the ways of explaining the human experience; what it really means to be human. It allows us to bond and make deeper connections with one another, because there is something special about having the ability to make another laugh.

Imagine meeting a person from the 1800’s in our modern day. There would be a lot of differences. We would practically be people from two different worlds; and yes, even humor has changed today. However, there are certain levels of humor we would always share. Take this frog taxidermy from the 1800’s for example:

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it displays two stuffed frogs having a sword fight, poised as humans.  On the one hand, it contains a very whimsical spark of humor; goofy because the frogs, in their expressions and in their positions, can in no way inspire a feeling of solemnity. It makes us laugh. Yet at the same time, it seems that the creator of the taxidermy, beneath the guise of humor, could have been saying something about human nature, something almost satirical and serious. Thus, another reason for humor seems to be to be able to expose ideas of grave nature without depressing the mood entirely. However, more importantly, what is seen here is that a man from the 1800’s, is able to bond with us through time and share in our human experience and reflect that his own wasn’t too different from ours, all because our senses of humor seem to overlap. And it’s inspiring to believe that a man from such a different society is not so different from us after all. We’re all simply human.

Still, while on certain levels of humor our ideas can overlap cross culturally and even across the timeline, when it comes to verbal humor, it seems harder to transcend the cultural and linguistic border. I come from a Russian background, and my father is a big fan of telling jokes, but most of the time the humor is not translatable back to English. I always wondered why this is, since the words translate perfectly fine most of the time, assuming the joke is not a pun. Perhaps it is the culture itself that surrounds the words; an idea in one language is just not funny in another. Similarly, I had come home many times with a joke I heard that I thought was funny, translated it into Russian, and lost my parents somewhere in the translation.

In Russian, the proper word for a joke is ‘anikdot,’ or anecdote, in English. This is because that is what most jokes are in Russian: they’re short stories composed of (sometimes very many) sentences and ending in a punch line. To me, even the typical length of a Russian joke seems longer than the typical length of a joke in English. So, although there are so many differences in the ways different cultures perceive humor, how can it be that humor still manages to link us together and bond us as people cross-culturally?

The fact that humor can be non-verbal is very important. Smiles and laughter are a phenomena that appear in every culture, as something that seems to be embedded on a deeper level within the human species, and so, sharing humor cross-culturally should not be difficult at all since everybody understands smiles and laughter to mean the same thing: the person is happy.  Every time, humor seems to have the very centripetal quality of bringing people together, partly because it’s one of the few things we can do without necessarily having to speak.

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