Police Psychology | Humor and Culture
I was lecturing on police psychology to a conference crowd in Singapore, and I had included a funny metaphor of the development of the Apollo moon vehicle by NASA to show the rigidity in police organizations. The punch line is that NASA, like police organizations, relied on decisions based on the rear ends of horses centuries before. It is a funny and amusing story and gets from a small chuckle to a major minute’s ovation in America when it is finished. In Asia, the audience felt I was insulting the police commissioner who they liked a lot (and I did too). Since it was my opening story, I sort of lost that audience as they would cringe every time I started a new story or joke. I guess you could say it was Zen – “be the horse’s rear end.” I became the rear end of the horse. With over 450 keynote addresses in my life, this was one of two that I hated intensely.
Laughter is the world’s best medicine. Or is it? Unlike vaccines and typical pharmaceutical drugs, humor is not necessarily universal. What we find funny here in the United States may be considered offensive in other countries. Humor can be vastly different from person to person, culture-to-culture, religion-to-religion, and even among sexual orientations. Everyone enjoys some form of humor, however, the humor that is enjoyed and valued may be vastly different depending on the person’s background, exposure and beliefs.
Charles Darwin explored the adaptive ability of humor and concluded that
humor has an evolutionary function. When people laugh, it builds camaraderie and boosts feelings of connectedness and sociability among people. Freud claimed that laughter released tension from our unconscious anxieties and troubles. We are born with the ability to smile, and in fact some monkeys even have the ability to laugh. A smile is a universal ability—everyone in every culture smiles. It is true, in the western world, people are known to smile more easily and frequently than in other parts of the world, but everyone still appreciates a good joke.
The Relative Nature of Humor
However, a “good joke” is entirely relative. Studies suggest that Americans appreciate sexual humor a lot more than individuals from conservative cultures in which religion is paramount. However, individuals from many of these countries value violent jokes a lot more than Americans. I remember when I visited southern Russia in the winter of 2009, there were very few people smiling, except in café’s where they played Tom and Jerry cartoons on the TV sets. From Babushka to soldier, the old cat and mouse game inevitably ending in cat pain brought out a huge smile and laughter.
In some cultures, laughing or expressing intense emotions in public is frowned upon, so even if something funny occurs, laughing would be considered impolite. In addition, some language structures make it impossible for humor to be translated across cultures. In America, many of our punch lines appear at the end of our sentences, but that would be impossible to do so in the German language. Certainly language structure accounts for some of the fact that humor can get lost in translation, but that is not the full story.
I remember reading a story about an article in The Onion, where Kim Jung Un was listed as one of the sexiest men alive. It was reprinted in a Korean newspaper. No one there understood that it was meant to be a joke. All you have to do is look at the scandal surrounding “The Interview” to see how various cultures find completely different things funny. In America, people were lauding the movie as being hysterical and well worth a watch. In many Asian countries, the movie was seen as offensive and rude. Perhaps this is the perfect example of why cross-cultural humor can be so dangerous. It is easy to cross the line from funny into offensive without really being aware that you are doing so. Holocaust jokes are not funny if you are telling them to a Jew. Homosexual jokes are not funny if you are making fun of your gay or lesbian friend. And jokes about North Korea are not funny to the people who live there. It is a fine line, but a line that must be respected non-the-less.
Humor also has different functions depending on the culture. In America, we learn to use humor to diffuse tension or ease a situation, it a defense mechanism we engage in when we are uncomfortable. In many Asian cultures, however, humor is used as an educational tool, to emphasize a point, or clarify a concept.
The Universal Nature of Humor
Despite differences in humor, there are some things that are universally funny. The Incongruity-Resolution (IR) theory was first created by Immanuel Kant in the 18th century. This theory states that humor or laughter arises automatically when we are presented by something surprising or unexpected. That’s why the punch line is normally at the end of sentences to surprise people. This also explains why some people laugh when they see someone else fall down or walk into a glass door or do something else embarrassing. Kant explained people in all cultures and religions laugh at incongruity and their resolutions. It’s just that different societal structures prompt different types of incongruities. Of course, Kant also explained the differences between rationalism and empiricism in epistemology (the science of knowledge), so he may not be the most fun of your philosophers.
Elliot Aronson described when someone finds humor or likableness after they make a mistake or a blunder. He called it the “Pratfall Effect.” It is often used in marketing with one of our idols doing something out of the character for their competence level. In marketing, some call it the “blemishing effect.” So when the cat, who is usually the aggressor in cat-mouse relationships, gets beaten everyone laughs and smiles, but if the cat were to win and eat the mouse, that’s not entertainment. You’re funnier when you lose.
I returned to Singapore three years later for a shorter speech for the same conference. I tripped on the way to the podium, told an anecdote of pain for me, was unpredictable when I presented a children’s book for every person in the audience instead of talking about police stuff, and made sure to compliment the commissioner of police. It went over big and I went from horse’s rear end to riding the horse. You gotta learn from your failures. The conference is every three years and I’ll be lecturing again this year. I wonder if I should break out Tom and Jerry cartoons for my backdrop!
Blog Administrator: Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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