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Kevin Lu
Professor Bouhlas
355:201:17- Humor and Comedy
12/8/2015: Final Draft
Why Isn't My Joke Funny Everywhere? How Humor Crosses Cultural Lines
Abstract
The universality of humor has long been a point of contention; while appreciating humor
is largely believed to be universal (all cultures can laugh), there also exists great diversity of
humor types across cultures which are not directly transferrable. We analyze humor through the
incongruity-theory framework and examine how this humor process fares under two culturespecific dimensions: individualism-collectivism and uncertainty avoidance. We find that
individualistic cultures tend to use more aggressive humor, collectivist cultures tend towards
affiliative and self-enhancing humor, and high uncertainty avoidance cultures tend towards
resolved incongruity humor. Contrary to the popular mantra, this research supports the notion
that humor is not universal; people express their sense of humor in a certain way that reflects
their personality traits, values, attitudes, and beliefs shaped by their cultural orientation.
Introduction
Joe Wong, a Chinese born and raised comedian who has become critically acclaimed for
his performances for American audiences once delivered the line: I used to be really scared
about marriage 50% of all marriages end up... lasting forever! It was met with waves of
laughter and thunderous applause from the US audience, but fell completely flat in cringeworthy
silence when he performed the routine for an East Asian crowd (Cui, 1). Why is it that some
things are funny in one culture yet unfunny in another? Even across countries with a common
language humor does not necessarily travel well. Researcher Neil G. Martin, a Life Fellow of the
Royal Society of Arts and author of over 13 books on psychology, finds in his humor research
across the US, UK, and Australia that, although preferences and liking for certain types of
humor are more consistent within Western cultures, a preference that is helped by a shared
language and an appreciation of how this language is used to produce laughter, there are national

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differences in what is regarded as humorous. (Martin, 378). Thus understanding the fundamental
nature of humor across a range of cultural contexts is key to successfully delivering humor
across cultures, and is consequential in both interpersonal cross-cultural interaction as well as in
commercial use of global advertising and entertainment. Dr. Yih hwai Lee and Dr. Elison Lim,
renown faculty from the National University of Singapore Business School, note that failed
humor is counterproductive: It not only confuses the audience, but may also give offense. Since
the audience plays a key role in determining whether humor succeeds or fails, clarifying the
relationship between audience and message factors is especially important for advertisers. (Lee,
79) By identifying the culture-specific conditions necessary for humor to succeed we are better
able to minimize the gap between intended humor and the actual humor the audience perceives,
and ultimately be funnier to a global audience.
A major prevailing school of thought regarding why something is funny revolves around
the notion of incongruity that something deviated from expectations. This idea of incongruity
as a humor generating process is outlined by Immanuel Kant in the late 18th century. In Kant's
Critique of Judgment, he gives us a picture of this incongruity humor process by stating, "In
everything that is to excite a lively laugh there must be something absurd. Laughter is an
affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing" (Kant,
54). To visualize this, consider a burly, intimidating seven-foot bodyguard who actually has the
voice of a five-year old girl, or an elderly and frail looking grandmother suddenly busting out
grandmaster karate moves to fight off a robber stealing her purse. Often times the greater the
deviation or transformation of a strained expectation, the greater the humor response. In recent
years, Dana L. Alden, a professor of Marketing at Shindler College of Business and prolific
contributor to cross-cultural consumer behavior research, has extended Kant's incongruity theory

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to include additional conditions. According to Alden, a humorous response depends on (1)


rapid resolution of the incongruity, (2) a "playful" context, that is, with cues signifying that the
information is not to be taken seriously, and (3) an appropriate mood for the listener (Alden,
66). Joe Wong's one liner introduced at the beginning of this paper, I used to be really scared
about marriage 50% of all marriages end up... lasting forever! invokes this incongruityresolution humor process for its humor he sets up an expectation from which he deviates,
establishes playful tone to cue humorous intent, and finally resolves the incongruity by
delivering the punchline. In this framework, the humor comes from being able to reconcile the
punchline with the information earlier presented in the joke, thus allowing the audience to get
the joke, while still understanding that it is being delivered humorously and not to be taken
seriously.
Yet despite following the formula for a theoretically proven humor-generating process,
the joke still manages to be far more well received in one cultural context and falls flat in
another. Understanding how the same humor process can have drastically different reception in
different cultural contexts will be the focus of this paper. Of the ~196 different countries in the
world today, each one has a unique cultural flavor that influences the way humor is perceived in
their respective nations. We often pigeonhole nations into Eastern and Western, however as
Martin notes, East and West may be too broad a short-hand category with which to classify
these cultures. States of the US, for example (collectively, a Western sample), have been found to
differ in the degree of personality traits they express... (Martin , 378). If even within one
Western country like the US there exists a huge range of humor preference, then we must
analyze instead the cultural-specific qualities that have direct effect on interpretation of humor.
Professor Geert Hofstede, critically acclaimed researcher recognized as the founder of

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comparative intercultural research, developed models of dimensions of national culture which


he defines as the collective programming of the mind distinguishing the members of one group
or category of people from others (Hofstede, 25). Two cultural dimensions he establishes that
have the most consequence for humor and our research are individualism-collectivism and
uncertainty avoidance.
Using incongruity and incongruity-resolution theory as a framework for the humor
generating process, we will examine these two cultural dimensions, individualism-collectivism
and uncertainty avoidance, to understand how cultural context affects the reception of humor.
While all cultures certainly do laugh, the interpretation of humor is not universal the type of
humor that is most well received in any given cultural orientation will be the type that best
compliments it's culture-specific characteristics. Therefore there is no universal joke, as the
psychological attitudes of a given society have a consequential effect on the way the same humor
process is interpreted across cultures.
Incongruity Humor Across Individualism-Collectivism
The cultural dimension of individualism versus collectivism is essentially the degree a
society's self image identifies with I or we. Hofstede explicitly defines individualism as the
preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of
only themselves and their immediate families, and collectivism as the preference for a tightlyknit framework in society in which individuals can expect their relatives or members of a
particular in-group to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty (Hofstede,
Minkov). Simply put, some nations such as the US, Germany, UK, Australia are more
individualistic in that society favors freedom of action for individuals over groups, while others
such as China, Thailand, Singapore, Korea are more collectivist and prioritize the needs of the

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entire group or society over the individual. Alden and Lee expand upon Hofstede's dimension by
recognizing individualism-collectivism as a distinct psychological dichotomy across nations that
affects humor in their study of humor in advertising (Alden 67), since fundamentally collectivist
cultures have people together as groups of interdependent individuals and individualistic cultures
have people as independent entities with self needs apart from the group, the humor that works
best should include these cultural and psychological predispositions.
This cultural psychological difference is a driving force behind why it is difficult for the
same humor to be universally acclaimed incongruity and resolution may be what initially
makes a joke funny, but a joke based on individualistic qualities will thrive in individualistic
cultures rather than collectivist ones, and vice versa. In a study of humor in collectivist China,
Guo-Hai Chen notes that people express their sense of humor in a certain way that reflects their
personality traits, values, attitudes, beliefs, and so on. Thus, people who have a more collectivist
orientation tend to express a style of humor towards other people that reflects this trait, whereas
those with a more individualist orientation have another style of humor. (Chen, 67) Alden and
Lee's multi-national analysis on humor in advertising exemplifies this as they identify two
countries high in individualism: US and Germany, and two countries high in collectivism:
Thailand and Korea, and analyzed individual responses to various types of humorous
advertisements in their respective countries. Alden and Lee find that most television advertising
from diverse national markets in which humor is intended exhibits incongruent contrasts and
the number of individuals or characters playing major roles in ads in which humor is intended is
greater in high collectivism (low individualism) cultures than in low collectivism (high
individualism) cultures. (Alden 68). In particular, the sample of US and Germany
(individualistic) advertisements featured two or fewer individuals ~75% of the time compared to

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Thailand at 20% and Korea at 31% of the time. On the other hand, the sample of Thailand and
Korea (collectivist) advertisements featured three or more individuals 80% and 69% of the time,
while the US and Germany ads only had three or more individuals 25% of the time. (70) These
empirical results exemplifies the fact that while incongruity can make something initially funny,
it is the context in which that incongruity is delivered with an individualistic or collectivist flair
that helps render it effective. Chen's research takes this one step further by identifying
additional styles or humor types of incongruity that are more associated with individualismcollectivism. He finds that aggressive humor was found to be consistently and very significantly
related to vertical individualism, suggesting that those who are competitive and strive to win at
the expense of others, tend to use humor to enhance themselves by disparaging others (Chen
66), which may be a soft reflection of the personality traits and attitudes cultivated by an
individualistic society. Chen is not entirely alone in his claim; an independent study by Ofra
Nevo published in the Journal of General Psychology also found that the US students
(individualistic) were far more likely than Singaporean students (collectivist) to make aggressive
and sexual jokes (Nevo 152). It is likely that the individualistic culture of the US allows these
jokes to still remain playful and in appropriate mood, and allowing for the incongruity to be
understood and resolved. In contrast, horizontal collectivism was positively and significantly
related to two beneficial humor styles, affiliative and self enhancing humor (Chen 66),
suggesting that people who see themselves as part of a larger egalitarian group tend to use humor
to empower all members of the group. Aggressive style jokes thus understandably fall flatter in
these cultures, where the cultural norm is to empower your fellow neighbors and work
collectively for the hive rather than for personal achievement. Ultimately, the most effective
humor will be the one that best reflects the level of individualism or collectivism.

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Incongruity Humor Across Uncertainty Avoidance


A culture's level of uncertainty avoidance is essentially their risk tolerance. Hofstede
defines uncertainty avoidance as the extent to which members of a culture feel threatened by
uncertainty or unknown situations (Hofstede, Minkov 167). Specifically, individuals from
cultures with low uncertainty avoidance are more tolerant of variability and risk-taking, while
those in cultures with high uncertainty avoidance prefer stability, predictability, and avoid taking
risks. These qualities often manifest themselves in strict rules, laws, policies, and regulations in
high uncertainty avoidance cultures to avoid uncertainty. In weak uncertainty avoidance
countries, anxiety levels are lower, and aggression and emotions are less prominent. (171)
Uncertainty avoidance has been studied across many countries, and has been well-documented
and quantified on a scale relative to other countries. For example, Arab-countries scored a 68 on
uncertainty avoidance, while the United States had a score of 46, indicating that Arab-countries
have a lower tolerance for uncertainty relative to the United States (Kalimy, 127). Uncertainty
avoidance as a dimension is not mutually exclusive of individualism-collectivism, for example a
society could be both risk averse and individualistic, or any combination thereof.
Given that incongruity humor inherently comes with a degree of uncertainty depending
on how it resolves for the audience to get the joke, the type of incongruity humor that works
best in high uncertainty avoidance cultures will inevitably differ than the type that works best in
low uncertainty avoidance cultures. Rather, high uncertainty avoidance cultures will likely enjoy
minimal uncertainty, conservative, and clear resolution, while low uncertainty avoidance cultures
may enjoy higher uncertainty, riskier, and open-ended humor. Dr. Yih hwai Lee and Dr. Elison
Lim conducted an empirical studying on the moderating role of uncertainty avoidance in

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advertising humor. They first asked 222 MBA students to respond to a questionnaire to identify
their preference for uncertainty-avoidance. Then they were randomly assigned to watch two
humorous advertisements employing incongruity humor, with a follow-up Likert Scale
questionnaire on their reactions to the ad exposure (ie. This ad is very funny to me. 7 = strongly
agree). The verdict: ads using the incongruity resolution humor process with resolved
incongruity will elicit more favorable responses among consumers with higher (versus lower)
uncertainty avoidance. (Lee 73). Additionally, they also find that the inverse is true, with their
results showing that ads using the incongruity resolution humor process with unresolved
incongruity will elicit less favorable responses among consumers with higher (versus lower)
uncertainty avoidance. (73) Thus Lee and Lim develop Hofstede's cultural dimension of
uncertainty avoidance by defining a clear correlated effect on incongruity humor audiences
with higher uncertainty avoidance tend to prefer humor with resolved incongruity, and vice
versa. If we recall Guo-Hai Chen's humor theory that people express their sense of humor in a
certain way that reflects their personality traits, values, attitudes, beliefs (Chen 67), then this
empirical result should not be surprising risk averse cultures enjoy more conservative jokes
that have clear resolved incongruities as it reflects their conservative attitudes, while risk-taking
cultures enjoy open-ended, cliffhanger jokes that derive their punch from that incongruity in the
spirit of embracing risk and uncertainty.
Furthermore, while these results affect solely the audience factor what the listener
prefers given their risk tolerance, uncertainty avoidance can also contribute an effect on the
initiator or person telling the joke. Individuals in risk-averse / high uncertainty avoidance
cultures may tend to shy away from aggressive / risque humor because they are inherently

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riskier to deliver, since they aren't sure how well their joke will be received by the audience
(Kalliny 127). In a cross-cultural study of differences between Egyptian, Lebanese, and
American humor styles, Morris Kalliny finds that in a risk-taking society like the US, the use of
aggressive humor may be more prevalent than it is in risk-averse Arab culture societies (127), as
a risk taking individual is more likely to accept the risk of an awkward interaction if the joke
fails and the audience gets offended, for the possible benefit of a stellar response to a successful
aggressive joke. Kalliny's claim on how risk taking societies use aggressive humor furthers the
research by Guo-Hai Chen on humor styles and the correlation of aggressive humor to
individualism and self-enhancement by additionally establishing a link of aggressive humor to
low uncertainty avoidance and showing that the effects of cultural dimensions on humor are not
mutually exclusive. Furthermore, Rod A. Martin's publication of his four fundamental styles of
humor defines aggressive humor with inherently an aspect of uncertainty, stating aggressive style
humor as the tendency to express humor without regard for its potential impact on others (e.g.,
sexist or racist humor), and includes compulsive expressions of humor in which one finds it
difficult to resist the impulse to say funny things that are likely to hurt or alienate others (Martin
54). Therefore the person delivering the aggressive joke must have low uncertainty avoidance /
higher risk tolerance to be able to deliver humor without regard for potential impact on others.
Finally, Lee and Lim acknowledge this phenomenon in the realm of humor in advertising as
well, as the level of uncertainty avoidance in the message factor or person delivering the joke
has a noteworthy effect on not only the type of humor delivered, but also how well it is received
(Lee, 72). Thus the uncertainty avoidance dimension of a given culture has a substantial effect
both on the way its people deliver and perceive humor, which ultimately supports the notion that
humor has significant variation across cultural landscapes and is far from universal.

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An Opposing View: A Common Denominator of Humor


It is important to note that although humor differs vastly across cultural contexts, there
exists fundamental aspects of humor that seem to be understood universally. For instance, the
incongruity process itself seems to manifest across all cultures. In the Alden and Lee study on
advertisements across individualism-collectivism, they found that despite the content difference
in jokes, incongruity based humor was used in a majority of television advertising that was
intended to be humorous despite significant differences on major cultural dimensions (70),
suggesting that incongruent cognitive structures is central to humor generation regardless of
cultural orientation. This sentiment seems to be echoed in other independent studies as well, such
as by Professor Lynette S. Unger of Miami University in a study of humor in advertising she
finds that despite its variation in form, humor is panhuman. (Unger 66) This is incredibly
important in the realm of advertising, where it is imperative that companies are able to convey a
message to the widest possible audience, often over language and cultural barriers. Unger notes
that copy elements must often be universal enough to promote product benefits and image
among different cultures (66) and humor may offer such universality. She substantiates this
claim with a cross cultural experiment of presenting advertisements to American and Finnish
audiences, finding that there were no national differences on the nine path analyses results,
indicating linkage between perceived ad funniness, liking the ad, and liking the product. (68)
The main result of this study is consequential at least across these two countries, they were
both able to appreciate humor in the same way. However, there is a clear distinction here
between 'humor is universal across cultures' versus 'all cultures can have a sense of humor'. The
former implies that any single joke would be have the same reception in any context, while the

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latter suggests every culture has humor, and may be able to appreciate similar humor processes.
Conclusion
What's funny? Depends who you ask and where they're from. Everyone can laugh and
humor exist across all cultures, but often times the content that drives the laughter are not
directly transferrable across cultural lines. This result is not chance, and can be attributed
directly to the fact that a society's sense of humor is shaped by their cultural dimensions their
collective programming of the mind and psychological attitudes. We find that two such cultural
dimensions, individualism-collectivism and uncertainty avoidance, strongly affect the way
incongruity-based humor is both delivered and perceived in those respective cultures.
Specifically, the types of humor that fare best in any given culture is the type that reflects and
compliments the psychological predispositions of that culture. Individualistic societies favor
aggressive humor styles that draws upon the individual, while collectivist societies favor
affiliative and self-enhancing humor styles that empower the group. Uncertainty-avoiding
cultures desire stability and certainty and thus prefer humor with resolved incongruities and
avoid delivering riskier aggressive jokes, while more risk-taking cultures have no qualms with
embracing open-ended incongruity and the risk of telling offensive, aggressive, and sexual jokes.
The analyses present in this paper explore a lesser-touched perspective of the non-universality of
humor, but draws upon a wide array of empirical studies and relate them to previous theory of
humor and culture-dimensions to substantiate this view. The research still has much room to
continue in the direction of exploring additional cultural dimensions such as power distance,
masculinity/femininity, facework, and other cultural predispositions on their effects on humor not
discussed here. We recognize that humor is not limited to any specific culture; the incongruity

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humor process is a pan-human phenomenon that belongs to all people. However, for comedians,
marketers, advertisers, and anyone that wishes to share a laugh across a cultural line, it is
important to remember -- a joke that is funny here may not be funny there, as the various
cultural-specific dimensions of a society shape both the psychology of a people, and the types of
knock knock jokes they want to hear.

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