Chia Suan Chong considers how we deal with humour in the classroom and how we could prepare our students to communicate internationally by helping them better understand how humour is perceived across cultures.
I once got a group of teacher trainees from several different countries to watch this TED talk for homework. Like most TED talks, the presenter was charming and used anecdotes and humour expertly to bond and build rapport with the audience.
So it was much to my surprise when during our discussion of the TED talk, half my trainees said something to the tune of “He was supposed to be presenting research but he was making so many jokes that I didn’t think he was serious. Is he a comedian or is he an educator?”
The other half of my teacher training course however thought that his use of humour endeared them to him and kept their attention throughout, making his key messages a lot more palatable.
Humour is used not just in presentations but in our day-to-day life, for a variety of purposes. We use humour to entertain our conversation partners, to break the ice, to build rapport, to foster social cohesion, to hide our unease or embarrassment, and as a means of disguising critical content and challenging norms.
In the recent issue of ETp (Issue 112), my feature article looked at how we deal with the humour in the language classroom. Many of us teachers recognize the power of humour to make our lessons more interesting, reduce the power distance between the teacher and the students, and foster a conducive environment for learning to take place. Blogposts like this one by Bruno Andrade explore the virtues of using humor in the ELT classroom and, as Bruno quotes Josh Round saying, humour helps to reduce the affective filter and helps students relax.
But how do we actually ‘teach humour’ in the classroom?
A quick look at ELT materials and coursebooks reveal that humour is often addressed in the form of English jokes, those that often contain a play on words, like this one:
Teacher: If ‘can’t’ is short for cannot, what is ‘don’t’ short for?
There is even an entire website dedicated to jokes that feature particular grammar or lexical items that are easy for teachers and students to dissect.
While we do use humour to bond with our students, and we do have them scrutinizing English riddles and jokes, we don’t seem to actually address the topic of how humour is used when our students communicate in English. Or whether it should be used at all. Humour, after all, is not really universal.
When we think about the universality of humour, comedies like Mr Bean come to mind. Well-loved around the world, Mr Bean, the title character, is ‘a child in a grown man’s body’, constantly causing disruption to the problems he tries to solve. The physical comedy in Mr Bean is probably the best example of a universal humour that crosses most cultural boundaries.
However, play the buffoon like Mr Bean in your face-to-face international interactions and you might find yourself in an awkward situation. Acting in an unexpected and silly manner might be a tool commonly used in Britain and America to ease tensions and break the ice but in countries like China and Japan, where humour tends to be reserved for comedians and specialists in humour-related fields (Yue et al, 2016), this could be seen as an inability to be serious and might cause confusion.
My TED talk example above may exemplify how humour used in presentations might be interpreted differently across cultures (and by cultures, I’d go beyond national cultures to include corporate cultures and the cultures of different discourse communities), but the same complexities apply to most international interactions.
There are four styles of humour as defined by Kuiper et al (2007): Self-enhancing, affiliative, self-defeating and aggressive. While North Americans are known to react positively to self-enhancing humour, the collectivist tendencies of the East results in a less positive perception of self-oriented (self-enhancing or self-deprecating) and other-oriented (affiliative) humour. (ibid)
Although it is always dangerous to generalize, humour is often something that is inculcated in us via our upbringing, and so there tends to be a lot of research and articles written about the sense of humour of particular countries. A lot has been said, for example, about the English sense of humour. And in the book ‘Watching the English’ (2004), social anthropologist Kate Fox dedicates an entire chapter to ‘humour rules’, with further sub-sections on irony, understatement, self-deprecation, and ‘the importance of not being earnest’. A British putting themselves down in order to endear them to their Chinese or Japanese conversation partner might however create more confusion than intended.
Websites like this one offer a guide to humour across cultures, categorized according to countries and regions. There are even organisations like the International Society for Humour Studies that feature academic research on humour and the use of humour across cultures.
One of the articles in the ISHS journal, Humor, looks at cross-cultural research on the fear of being laughed at. Surveying people from 72 different countries and 42 different languages, the research considers how some people might get more suspicious when others laugh in their presence and how important it is to some people not to make a ridiculous impression. (For an interesting summary of the points of this research, look here.)
This brings home the question of how our students use humour when they communicate internationally in English. Are they aware of how humour is used differently amongst different groups? If their interlocutor uses humour where it isn’t usually expected, are they able to understand their reasons for using humour? Do they realize that laughter (of the laughing out loud variety) might have different effects on different people? While some might find it attractive, it might make others nervous and uncomfortable. (Liao, 1998)
When communicating internationally, consider these six tips:
- Avoid aggressive humour: humour that puts down, insults and pokes fun at your conversation partner. It is the type of humour used by bullies and is perceived negatively by most.
- Avoid jokes that involve making fun at someone’s expense. This includes jokes that laughs at the stereotypes of a certain country, community or culture.
- Listen and get a feel for your interlocutor’s sense of humour. Try to adapt to it. You don’t have to give up your own sense of humour but be sensitive to the differences.
- Consider things that your interlocutor might relate to, e.g. day-to-day challenges of the job or of home life, and find the comedy in situations (rather than people) to create a sense of fellowship.
- Understand that not every culture sees humour as a coping mechanism and laughter as a way of easing uncomfortable, awkward situations (e.g. laughing at your own mistakes).
- When presenting, be extra careful with the use of humour. As far as possible, familiarise yourself with the expectations of your audience. Avoid making jokes if you are unsure.
How do your students use humour and how is it different from the way you use humour? Do you use humour for different purposes?
Would you consider doing the following in your classrooms?
- Get your students to consider the different styles of humour and discuss how this might be perceived amongst their communities of practice and how this fits into your students’ cultures.
- Watch some short YouTube videos of different comedy skits and discuss what makes them funny, a standup comedy skit.
- Make use of the cross-cultural differences in how humour is used and perceived to raise awareness and trigger discussions in the classroom.
For if we are training our students to become successful international communicators, we could truly add value to our lessons by helping them reflect on the place of humour in their interactions.
Fox, K. (2004) Watching the English: The hidden rules of English behaviour. Hodder and Stoughton: London.
Kuiper, N. A., M. Grimshaw, C. Leite, G. Kirsh (2004). Humor is not always the best medicine: specific components of sense of humor and psychological well-being. Humor 17 135–168. 10.1515/humr.2004.002
Liao C. C. (1998). Jokes, Humor and Chinese People. Taipei: Crane.
Yue, X., F. Jiang, S. Lu, N. Hiranandani. (2016) To be or not to be humorous? Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Humour in Frontiers in Psychology. 7:1495.