Humour is not only contextual, it’s cultural too. Mexicans laugh at death, while the French enjoy a good chuckle watching the world go by. Here five Copenhagen urbanites with different backgrounds share their stories of humour across cultures.
Nobuko Miyata Petersen, shop assistant
Eating in Japan seemed really funny to my Western ex-husband. When we eat, we don’t speak. We only have one mouth! We’re quiet and concentrate on the food. I remember one time, when we had 10 guests over for dinner at my parents’ house in Japan. We were all eating in silence. My ex-husband was looking around and trying to talk to us, but no one said a word. He thought it was hilarious.
In Japan, there are a lot of funny situations in the public toilets. They’re often automatic and the only signs explaining how they work are in Japanese. When you sit down on the toilet, you hear a loud peeing sound. This is supposed to make people feel less ashamed, especially if someone is standing outside. But foreigners get scared, jump up and leave!
“People are really sensitive about making jokes about foreigners”
Nobuko Miyata Petersen
Humour is so different from culture to culture. In Denmark where I live, people are really sensitive about making jokes about foreigners. They’re afraid to hurt our feelings, but I don’t care if they joke about the fact that I’m Japanese. I don’t think they should make it such a delicate matter. They can just be themselves and make a joke.
Claudia Cohen, kindergarten teacher and former film festival planning director
With my Mexican family we often joke when a person is leaving. They could be going on holiday, a day trip or even just heading out for a few groceries, and we’ll say: “And this was the last time we saw her!” I’ve tried saying it elsewhere and the joke failed completely. People don’t think it’s funny. They even find it sinister and cynical. But in Mexico we have a lot of humour around death. Of course we don’t want someone to disappear or die. It’s more about hoping that it won’t happen.
“I’ve tried saying it elsewhere, and the joke failed completely”
I’ve noticed differences in what people laugh at when I go to the movies. I watched Volver by Pedro Almodóvar in Copenhagen and then in Mexico. When Penélope Cruz comes back to her village and greets all her aunts and former neighbours, she kisses each of them on their cheeks with quite a loud kissing sound. In Denmark, people were laughing, probably because they thought it was exaggerated intentionally by the director. In Mexico, no one thought it was funny. Because it’s not funny!
Anne Sophie Allarp, lawyer, writer and journalist
Working for the European Commission, I lived in Zambia. At the office, there was a dress code. You could either wear a business suit, a safari suit or as a woman, a chitenge, a traditional, figure-hugging Zambian dress with puffed sleeves and a headdress. This was before anyone talked about cultural appropriation, so I’d got myself a chitenge. One day I wore it to work. Mine was orange and green and of course I had a headdress too. The rumour quickly spread about what I was wearing, and one by one everyone stopped by my desk to check it out. When my Zambian friend later saw a picture of me wearing the dress, he couldn’t stop laughing and said: “You look sooo white in that thing!”
“When my Zambian friend saw the picture, he couldn’t stop laughing”
Anne Sophie Allarp
I also used to live in Madrid. My former husband and I had gone in for a check-up with our newborn baby. The nurse kept referring to her as a boy, so she was surprised to see her mistake when we took off the nappy. “I had no idea she was a girl. She’s not wearing earrings,” the nurse said. In Spain it’s customary to get a girl’s ears pierced after two or three weeks. My husband looked at the nurse with a straight face and said: “We have decided not to pierce her ears. We are, however, considering having a large eagle tattooed on her back.” It fell very flat. The nurse simply did not understand the joke.
Julie Canclini, communication consultant
In France, we tend to laugh a lot at strangers in the streets. If you sit at a café terrace and watch people passing by, you can burst into laughter just by looking at the way someone is dressed or how they walk. A quick look at the other is enough to start laughing, because you know they’re thinking the same thing.
It’s not to be mean, it’s just a way to bond with the person you’re laughing with. I don’t think people would do that elsewhere. Either because they find it rude or they don’t sit and watch other people as much as we do in France. I think it’s very much linked to the French terrace culture. We spend hours with friends at cafés, talking and checking other people out.
I’ve been living in Denmark for many years, and in the beginning I had a hard time understanding the ironic humour, because Danes don’t use body language when they talk. Or at least not as much as we do in France. So when someone said something ironic, I wasn’t sure if they were joking.
“You can laugh and connect with people you don’t even share a language with”
That said, I’ve been travelling and working with people all over the world and it can be surprising how you can laugh and connect with people you don’t even share a common language with. Humour is also about connection.
Yaman Sido, sign painter
There’s a joke that I think only Arabs get. But let me tell it anyway:
Two guys, Hassan and Peter, grow up together and meet each other many years later in a department store. They are happy to see each other and ask how the other is doing.
“I’m fine,” says Peter, “but I can’t find my wife. She seemed to disappear here in the store.”
“Really? I can’t find my wife either,” says Hassan. “Let’s go find them. So what does your wife look like?” asks Hassan.
“Well, she’s slim, tall and blond. She used to work as a model. What does your wife look like?” Peter responds.
“Never mind my wife,” says Hassan. “Let’s go look for your wife.”
“Then the joke is told once more, and we laugh again”
When I’m with my Arab friends we really laugh. For a long time. And then the joke is told once more, and we laugh again. Sure, Danes laugh, of course they do, but they don’t laugh as long or as much.
I remember sitting on a bench with some Arab friends. A couple passed by with their dog. The guy cleaned up after the dog, putting the poo in a little plastic bag. But then his girlfriend started cleaning the dog’s behind! I’d never seen that in Syria. We couldn’t stop laughing.
When I was sitting on a bench with a group of Danish friends a couple walked by, and one of my friends said: “Oh my God, that guy is so ugly. How can he even have a girlfriend?” And then they were all laughing. The Danes I know laugh at other people like that. But I don’t think it’s funny. In Syria we don’t laugh at the way other people look. They can’t help it.