A sense of humour is very much part of the basic desirable traits in Anglo-Saxon cultures. The ability to laugh about situations, people – oneself and others – to make light of problems that would otherwise become hard to deal with is a very important part of character.
But types of sense of humour are the one thing that can be literally untranslatable in spirit, and even after years of living in a new country some people will never find themselves laughing as hard as the locals at their jokes (or even laughing at all) and would do best to shy away from telling their own, if they don’t want to risk being met with embarrassed silence or forced hahas.
I was made very much aware of this years ago at the cinema with an Aussie pal (Happy Birthday Chary!), watching a film where a scene showed a cat knocking a funerary urn off a fireplace mantel, which in the context of the film was uproariously funny and had us literally in tears, desperately trying to stop laughing minutes after the scene had moved on. While the all-Italian audience had sat through the whole sequence in horrified silence. To be fair, the ashes were of the “suocera”, the all-.powerful mother-in-law figure. In my training of adults, I’d already noticed Italians are immoderately afraid of death, so noir isn’t really on their menu. The best way to get a language class of adults to quiet down used to be to take out a couple of haunted-house stories. At present, some of the younger generation seems to be into Gothic, but for the thrills, not the laughs.
I remember another session of uncontrollable giggles watching a French film here and being the only one laughing at a light-slapstick situation developing. There was nothing excessive about it, just nicely funny. From what I see on TV, what really gets audiences going here are heavy slapstick, with swear words galore, and lines preferably shouted. This is also the home of the Commedia dell’Arte, where cuckoldry was seen as riotously funny, and Italians still seem to think so nowadays (unless they’re directly involved in real-life situations, in which murderous outcomes are not rare). In these cases, I’m the one who ends up with the lost look on my face – what’s so funny? Finally, understated play-on-words comedy does exist but seems to only amuse a smaller, more sophisticated segment.
Obviously a whole area of humour is hard to understand in any country, and that’s political jokes. In Italy, without an in-depth knowledge of local corruption and general political ineptness – it helps to also be familiar with past episodes and with the fine points of regional Mafia variations – no way you can laugh along with everybody else.
Traditional British humour is tongue in cheek and not in-your-face enough to cross over to the Continent. Not so more recent blue-collar trends which have their equivalents in most EU countries. However, an insufficient knowledge of cultural backgrounds is a major hurdle anyway.
Sarcasm is what happens invariably when you’ve dealt with problems with a sense of humour in the past, by laughing them off, and at a certain point, things haven’t improved and your patience has worn thin. That’s when you tip over into sarcasm. You’re still above the fray, but just barely.
The problem with sarcasm is that if it becomes your main avenue of expression in dealing with a particular issue, you end up falling into a rut, and finally blend in with the local Zeitgeist which is cynicism. Italians are cynics per eccellenza, after all it’s the homeland of Machiavelli. Cynicism is tiring. But it can be a struggle not to be dragged along with the current in the long term. Staying optimistic is sometimes tough when confronted by everyday dysfunction of basic services, incompetence and dishonesty, all of which are trumpeted with alarmist glee by local newspapers. Yet cynical is ugly, the opposite of believing in things possibly getting better, it’s a dead-end street. The very opposite of my family-inspired desirable character values. So it’s sometimes uphill to keep the faith …
Do you have any thoughts on country-specific sense of humour? on sarcasm or cynicism?
These (my) photos are not really relevant – idea borrowed from http://notesfromtheuk.com (hope you don’t mind Ellen, just this once ‘cause I’m in a tear).