Recently, I found myself in Mexico, sitting at a table full of food surrounded by friends. Everyone was enjoying themselves, eating, chatting, and laughing. The mood was convivial. Speaking Spanish as a second language and having known most of the people there for close to a decade, I felt comfortable. Then I told a joke.
The disappointing realization that no one had found my joke funny – or even understood it – crept through my mind, and I had to act fast to clear up the confusion that showed on my friends’ faces.
If you’re like me, you understand the value of a good laugh. Laughter has been shown to decrease stress, improve health, and it helps us connect and bond with others. While there are many ways to make people laugh, one of my favorites is with words.
There are good jokes and there are bad jokes, and then there are really bad jokes.
Some people tend to be more gifted at using words to make other people laugh. Even if you are among the jocularly gifted, if you’re speaking a second language and interacting with people from a culture you didn’t grow up in, then chances are good that from time to time you will tell a joke that people will not find funny.
Why do jokes fall flat in our second language?
People from different cultures tend to find different things funny – or not.
The joke offends.
Depending on where you are from and where your listeners are from, a joke that is hilarious in your culture could be either worthy of laughter, or, in the worst of cases, offensive to listeners from another culture. Jokes that offend usually do so, either with their content, the relationship between the jokester and the listener, or both of those things. The differences in what is and is not funny between Eastern and Western cultures have been explored and described. For an academic approach to the topic, click here.
If the content of your jest is not the issue, the problem might have to do with how you tell the joke. We’ve all seen someone tell a joke badly. Either they give away the punchline too soon or they stumble through the lead-in, forgetting crucial pieces of information. This part of telling a joke is universal. When telling a joke in a second language, you definitely want to use the right vocabulary and pronounce it well enough for your listener to understand.
Especially when it comes to one-liners, or zingers, when telling jokes cross-culturally sometimes, people use language behaviors that, while they may work in their own culture, do not work in the culture they’re communicating in. British culture, for instance, is notorious for its use of sarcasm.
Inadequate set-up. | They don’t translate.
Many jokes rely on a shared context. If you don’t know the background information, you might be the only one who isn’t laughing at the punchline. This is particularly common in a second language situation.
If your audience doesn’t know the context for your joke, then it won’t be funny. In a second language situation, many references to pop culture may not be shared, so people may be confused when you evoke the Eugenio Derbez line from Familia P. Luche and start calling your friend Bibi, asking her why she isn’t a normal girl.
What to do when your joke has bombed.
In conversation, when we tell a bad joke, we have several options.
Especially if the conversation is fast-paced, sometimes just ignoring the bad joke and moving on with the dialogue is the best thing you can do. Lighthearted jokes do not contain information crucial to a conversation (although they can), but rather they serve to lighten the mood.
Explain the joke.
Different cultures find different things funny, so it may be the case that your listeners understood the joke, it just didn’t tickle their funny bone in the way they’re accustomed to. If you have the opportunity to explain what you meant by your joke and what made the joke funny, then doing so may help your listeners to understand your thought process a bit better, and to shed some light on cultural differences in humor.
Acknowledge the joke was a dud.
From time to time, in order to stay humble, it’s important to be able to laugh at ourselves. A simple statement like, “that sounded better in my head” or “man, I was really hoping you would laugh at that” can communicate to your listeners that you just made a joke and they missed it.
Whatever you do, do it quickly.
Unless your listeners ask for a detailed explanation, it is best to keep the recovery from a failed joke brief, so the conversation can progress.
In the case of my failed joke, as the pause of confusion continued, I quickly explained my use of sarcasm and the conversation was up and running again as if the pause had never happened.
If you’re interested in working on your communication skills in English as a Second Language, then let’s talk. Making positive changes in your ability to use English effectively really isn’t that hard, it just takes some help.