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Cultural Differences: are there boundaries to humour?

Saskia Maarse | March 31, 2022

Every culture has its own style of humour, with unique inside jokes and sensitive subject matter. Jokes that make people from one country tear up from laughter, can cause unbearable silences in those from another. When it comes to humour, cultural differences are based on where the “no go” line is, with the jokes being just on the acceptable side. For Example, humour can fail on different perception of hierarchy. Two colleagues laughing at a joke about their boss is imaginable in almost every culture – given the boss is not there. However, if the boss in questions is the leader of a country or a king or queen, then in most countries, people have to be careful. Nevertheless, all cultures do have something important in common when it comes to humour.

In the Netherlands, where hierarchy and status are less important, many jokes are made about the royal family. In cultures where hierarchy is important, like many Asian and South American counties, its unthinkable. Both criticism and jokes about authoritative figures should be avoided as much as possible, or even restricted.  After all, something like this could lead to face-loss or even shame in some cases.

If it ain’t Dutch, it ain’t much
In general, Dutch people aren’t afraid to address the elephant in the room, even if it’s about themselves or others, as self-criticism is valued more than compliments. Besides this, the Dutch are usually quite convinced of their own opinion, at least that’s how it appears to foreigners – “if it ain’t Dutch, it ain’t much!”

Many cultures experience self-criticism and jokes about others as a lack of (self-) respect. People in cultures where authority is important, such as Japan, are easily confused by self-spot. They don’t recognize the hierarchical levels as soon as someone noticeably puts themselves down with self-spot.

Germans have no sense of humour
“The Germans are also prone to hierarchy” says John Mazeland, the director of Business Alliance Netherlands-Germany. “Jokes are made in the theatre where people purposefully go to laugh, but not in business. As the Dutch easily flip between joking and seriousness, they quickly assume that Germans have no sense of humour. They do, just differently than them.”

The limits of humour
There is no universal sense of humour. Jokes are always made in a certain environment and need people to recognize and acknowledge the context. Globalization and modern communication methods make jokes more accessible to more people. The downside is that if the receiver does not understand the context, they might interpret the jokes wrongly.

A universal need for laughter
There is no universal sense of humour, but there is a universal need for laughter. Humour combats stress and makes us happy. Laughing is a way to decompress in many cultures, a way to handle the pressure of life. It helps us relativize certain things and give a place to difficult experiences.

About Saskia

Saskia Maarse is an intercultural speaker, trainer and author. She writes and speaks about Dutch culture in both business / professional and social life. In her blogs, books and professional talks and workshops she uncovers the origins of deep-rooted Dutch characteristics. Saskia also explains what we can learn from and about other cultures – in areas like communication, leadership and human behaviour.

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