There are people who think that shared laughter is the most effective way for people of all cultural backgrounds to connect. However while searching for a flat, writer Dominic Otiang’a started to notice that there are indeed different cultural understandings of what is funny.
Let’s talk about humour. Not because it burns calories or triggers connections, but because it can apparently trigger disconnection in a multicultural society, especially if humour is assumed to be universal. Some property owners in the state of Baden-Württemberg now even have »a good sense of humour« in their list of requirements for a potential tenant. Has that got in your hair yet? As if they’ll be knocking each morning at your door for their daily dose of humour. Humour is somehow assumed to be universal, but the acceptance and empirical definition of a »sense of humour« is still dodgy.
To begin with, I informed some friends I was looking for an apartment, and they wished me well, knowing only too well how difficult that was going to be. With an apostrophe in my surname rather than an umlaut, I expected the search to be a doubly difficult uphill struggle. Just one week later, I told them I’d found a place to call home. Of course they were surprised. »How?« they asked. »A good sense of humour,« I answered.
Here’s how: When I showed up for the apartment viewing and was informed that 11 other people would be coming after me for the very same apartment, I lost all hope of being the chosen one. I was also irritated that the apartment owner expected tenants with certain hobbies and a »sense of humour.« My hopelessness and anger was made known by returning similar questions back to the landlady and her husband. Questions such as »Where do you come from? How long have you been here? What are your hobbies? How did you come here? …« And I remembered to adopt a poker face when posing these questions back at them. The husband said that he was from Rosenheim – »That’s a town in Bavaria.« – and that he had come to Stuttgart a decade ago because he landed a job in the city, and then a good wife.
»Oh, that’s a double fortune! Hmh! So it’s not only people coming from Greece, Portugal, or some other place to look for jobs here! Some people come from Bavaria? And by the way, your German is really good. I must say I’m impressed!« I laid the compliments about his eloquence on with a trowel. His wife broke into laughter while he attempted to explain himself. »No, but I am from Germany. I am German!«
»Yes, of course, you are from Rosenheim, Bavaria/Germany! But I tend to philosophize that the proof of lingual excellence is in speech, not in identity; you don’t become excellent in a language by mere virtue of being a native speaker. Or am I wrong? … No? Yes?«
To make a long story short, I left the apartment owners hoping that their feathers were ruffled and that they would have no more appetite for exaggerated demands from potential tenants. And certainly no energy to pose infinite questions to the forthcoming 11 potential tenants. But just one day later, they responded, saying in part, »… We really admired your character and – most of all – your deep sense of humour … You can live in our apartment.« I thought this kind of email was humour par excellence. But that’s just me.
When I met with three other people recently, one began complaining about her Greek co-worker being »strange« and »weird« because the colleague could not understand humour at all. »She just doesn’t get it, and it’s not fun to work with her.«
»Oh, you have a sense of humour in Germany! Really?« The woman’s boyfriend interrupted with an epigram. The boyfriend was British while the woman was Geman. At this point, I remembered the words of an Iranian-British comedian, Omid Djalili: »I am the only Iranian comedian in the whole world … but that’s three times more than in Germany.«
To follow on from that, when I first saw a German stand-up comedian coming on stage, my first impression was that he was a nuclear scientist trying out something new, now that the country is in a race to shut down all the nuclear power plants by 2022. However, after learning that he was previously in theology, I swore never to prejudge people. With him, I couldn’t see the humour from that first glance as I usually do with other comedians. Nor throughout his entire performance on stage. And when I occasionally laughed, it was because I found it funny that I was the only one not laughing; I laughed at the amusing fact that I wasn’t laughing at all.
However, after I got to understand the mentality, reality, the culture, customs, and traditions in Germany, he became one of my favourite comedians. I also remember when a Brit first tried to be humorous and cracked a joke in front of me on Christmas day. I got it and laughed on Easter Monday. And I asked myself: Is humour really universal? Now imagine the two apartment owners relocating to Britain or China and their potential landlord in those places also expecting someone with a »sense of humour.« I wonder if they would pass that »interview.«
Some months ago, I happened to stand on stage before a group of scientists, artists, scholars, diplomats, and politicians from two different countries and cultures, Kenya and Germany. Germans on my right, Kenyans on my left. Mine was a presentation of a literary piece with wit and situational humour. There were moments where laughter only came from the left side and at other moments only from the right side. But the moment there was loud laughter from both sides, I said yes! Finally, there was not a common sense of humour, but a common understanding of something. The gap was bridged.
When a native German thinks a Greek colleague doesn’t understand humour, and a Brit thinks there’s no humour whatsoever in Germany, then it’s because humour is not always universal. It’s a universal phenomenon present in every society and culture.
However, by expecting others from different societies to understand »us,« our culture, traditions, customs, and even to be like »us,« we are being consumed by the condescending notion that the society we live in is the prototype of a normal society. Others who are different from »us,« those who don’t understand our culture, customs, traditions, and humour run the risks of being considered weird or abnormal. From my experiences and interactions, I have come to see that there are senses of humour in every society. They are just not always the same as each other.