Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Humor Self-Test

I really love teaching my Alaska Literacy Program class, but I had a special treat this last semester: the unit on Humor. First, we had to work on our vocabulary. Imagine being new to English and encountering these expressions. It makes you realize how many land mines a new language presents:
  • It went over like a lead balloon
  • I don’t get it.
  • That’s too much.
  • That went over my head.
Our book took us through a Humor Self-Test of funny pictures. Or not-funny, if you didn’t get it. Or not-funny if it was just stupid. We had to rate them on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being very funny.

Quiet Insook rated everything a 5. As we went through each picture, and as Insook rated it a 5 yet again, we all found that hilarious. We’d wait for Insook’s vote and then laugh all over again.

Which was not as raucous as our laughter club. We’re supposed to improve our health and wellbeing by laughing for no reason. So we chuckled, looked at each other, and laughed some more. Soon we were helpless with laughter, sweating from laughter, tears streaming down our faces. Lori, the Literacy Program’s program director, came in because, as she said, her walls were shaking. We laughed harder. (Supposedly, all that laughter lost us between 10 and 40 calories.)

Everyone had to tell a joke in English to the rest of the class. Just imagine trying to tell a joke in another language! How would I even tell a knock-knock joke??? (I stuck with bringing in the peanut brittle can that explodes with snakes when you open it.)

Anne from Germany told this one: ‘Two toothpicks fight their troublesome way through the forest, taking many hours. Suddenly, they are passed by a porcupine. So one toothpick tells the other, “If I had known there was a bus route on our way, I would have waited.”’

We had to take some time to process mentally. Anne said, “Originally, the joke was about a hedgehog, but I thought maybe everyone would know porcupine better.” But that was only the beginning of our cultural adjustments. Some of us were still working on toothpicks, on waiting for buses, on forest. There is a lot of cultural translation that has to happen when you hear a joke. Moments later, we got it!

Rosario from Mexico told hers: ‘I gave my mother-in-law a present for Christmas, a cemetery plot. The next Christmas, she said, “Why haven’t you given me a present for Christmas?” I said, “Well, you haven’t used the one I gave you last year!”’

Some of us laughed, but Insook of South Korea was horrified: if a joke like that were told of a Korean mother-in-law, it would be scandalous. It would be a terrible, terrible insult. Definitely not a 5.

Meanwhile, Insook’s co-worker told her a blonde joke. In a room full of Asians and Latinos, the blonde joke doesn’t even compute.

Our workbook and CD had a few examples of practical jokes. We had to learn vocabulary like:
  • be the butt of a joke
  • cross the line
  • take a joke
“You’re invited to a friend’s costume party. When you arrive, everyone else is nicely dressed in business clothes, and you’re dressed in a chicken costume.” How do you rate that joke? It’s a 0 if it’s you, but if it’s someone else, we admitted, we’d go home and tell our families about this hilarious practical joke. It’s all a matter of perspective.
The toughest vocabulary to explain was “politically correct.” In a workbook scenario, someone told an offensive joke about an ethnic group. When the object of the joke was insulted, the joke teller accused him of being too politically correct.

So how do you explain to immigrants the recent cultural phenomenon of “politically correct”? How someone’s experience of hurt and insult is turned around to being their problem? That rudeness gets a free pass in the guise of opposing “political correctness”?

It’s all a matter of perspective, and every day, I appreciate the opportunity to see the world from many different directions.


  1. Wow, what fun! I taught one class at Literacy Project and learned so much! I was having breakfast with a Cambodian student who lives with my son in Bozeman. I was putting cream and sugar in my coffee and commented that I can't drink it without "doctoring it up." She looked puzzled: "The doctor wants you to drink coffee?" I had to stop and think what I had just said. "Oh, no, sorry! When you doctor something you fix it. So I'm fixing my coffee up the way I like it. It's one of those strange expressions." She's been here 5 years and had not run into that one. We both laughed about it.

    1. Idioms make life interesting! Think of all the ones we have for "getting angry."


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