Sta Hungry Stay Foolish

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

A blog by Leon Oudejans

Is humour universal?

4 February 2016


My 30 April 2015 blog was about “Humour and Laughter” but mostly laughter. Laughter is clearly a universal human phenomenon but is humour too? This question has been on my mind for quite some time. Probably because humour was a sensitive topic between a friend and me.

Whenever she made a joke, I just waited for the remainder of her joke. Unfortunately, there was usually no punchline because I had failed to understand her humour. On the other hand, she usually got upset with my jokes which came as a total surprise to me. She and I communicated in English which was not our native language. Perhaps our jokes got lost in translation. Perhaps it was because of our different cultural background although we do share the same religion.

So, is humour really universal?

It was hard finding any useful information about the cultural differences in humour and that is why I had almost forgotten about this topic. Yesterday I finally found something interesting: “The myth of universal humour” by Laura Turner Garrison and published by SplitSider and on her tumblr.

It appears that Ms Garrison has been on the same hunt as me. She found a very interesting study: “Breaking ground in cross-cultural research on the fear of being laughed at (gelotophobia): A multinational study involving 73 countries” (PDF) by R.T. Proyer and others. This study is the closest I have found relating to this topic. To some extent it’s the flipside of the same coin.

The study’s conclusion mentions that “there are first hypotheses on putative relations between gelotophobia and culture. For example, [ ] that gelotophobia should be higher in cultures where shame is used as a form of social control and in strongly hierarchical societies“.

The above hypothesis probably stems from the fact that Arab and Asian cultures show high scores while Western cultures show low scores in Table 3. African cultures seem to be in the midst. In Arab and Asian cultures, humour may give rise to fear – the fear of being laughed at – unlike most Western cultures. Remarkably, this study makes no reference to religion whatsoever.

The combination of humour and religion may even be dangerous. Excerpt from my 23 December 2015 blog: “it has become entirely normal in Western media to ridiculise or insult Jesus, a prophet in both Christianity and Islam. Applying reciprocity has had terrible consequences (eg, assassination attempts on Kurt Westergaard, Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris).”

Another important aspect is the purpose of humour: Western cultures are “using humour as a means to relieve stress and cope with difficult life situations” (PT). PsychologyToday: “The traditional Chinese approach, on the other hand, frames humour as a tool to illustrate a concept, prove a point, or win an argument. It teaches while it entertains“.

I think it’s safe to say that humour is universal but that our sense of humour is not universal at all and may even be quite local. Our sense of humour is defined by many cultural aspects, including male/female differences. Latter is explained in a most humorous way by Mark Gungor.

Mark Gungor – A Tale of Two Brains – FB, IMDb


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