Friday, May 23, 2008

Humor Lost

Recently I was wondering about humor and culture and differences of the two as they relate to each other.

One instance was when I took my family to see Bugs Bunny on Broadway at the Fort Worth Convention Center. While we laughed at the coyote’s misfortunes, a girl – possibly from Eastern Europe or Russia – kept saying “that poor creature.” The humor was completely lost on her.

An instructor at the Cross Cultural Communications Course offered by the United States Air Force told us a theory that there are four “levels” of cultural misunderstanding. They are described using a spoken joke:

The first level has a foreigner telling you a joke. Since you do not understand the language, you do not know what he is saying and you do not “get” the joke.

The second level has a foreigner telling you a joke. You know the words but do not know the slang or multiple word definitions. You understand the words but do not understand the meaning.

The third level has a foreigner telling you a joke. You know the words and their full definitions. You understand the joke yet; you do not understand why it is funny.

The fourth level – and the most difficult to overcome – has a foreigner telling you a joke. You understand the joke and you understand why he thinks it is funny. You, however, do not think it is funny.

This spans more than just languages. The culture in Anywhere, West Virginia is different than New York City.

I heard Johnny Cash’s A Boy Named Sue the other day and was reminded of a conversation I had with a Finn a few years ago.

In Finland, an American that was also working with us played the song on his computer. The Finn asked what the premise of the song was. We said that it was about a man whose father had named him “Sue” then left the boy and his mother. The rest of the song is about how he came to be a man and sought revenge on his father.

The Finn was puzzled: “Why was he upset about his name?”

Us: “’Sue’ is a girl’s name.”

Finn: “He was upset for having a girl’s name?”

Me: “Yes. It’s embarrassing.”

Finn: “So people take offense to having a girl’s name?”

Me: “Men do. They also take offense to being called ‘ladies’. Women don’t often get so upset if they are given a man’s name.”

Finn: “So why didn’t he just change his name or say it was something else?”

Me: “That’s part of the humor of the song. Obviously he could just give a different name or change his name himself. His father really couldn’t change his name once the birth certificate was signed. The fact that it was changed and he had to tell everyone that his name was ‘Sue’ is a sort of tomfoolery.”

I’ll take a break from the conversation here to say that I spent the next ten minutes trying to explain what “tomfoolery” is. Finns by and large are not stupid and are in general quick on the uptake. When you happen upon one with a sense of humor though, it can be a wonderful thing – a rare and wonderful thing.

We then continued explaining the song. He still found it hard to believe that anyone would fight over a name. He thought the knife fighting was unsettling. He could not believe that the man singing was carrying a gun and yet, “How could they get into a fight with their fists and not use their guns?”

I think the song, silly as it may be, says a lot about American humor, culture, and attitude. To this day, it is one of my favorites.

He eventually understood, but the Finn still did not think it was funny.

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