The Problem with Jokes

a young boy surprises his grandmother with a bucket of water over her head.

At the heart of Glish is our desire to connect with our clients by having real and interesting conversations in English. We also want to laugh together, but humour can be tricky. Some humour translates widely, like slapstick comedy where someone trips, or gets a bucket of water thrown on their head, and everyone laughs. But most humour is culturally specific. As conversation coaches, we need to be sensitive to the pitfalls of using humour in sessions with clients.

Let me give you an example. A few years ago, when I was working in an international school in Taiwan, a British teacher told the following joke to a large group of teenage students. 

A man buys a parrot from a pet shop. Once he gets home, he is shocked to discover that the parrot has learned rather rude expressions which he keeps on shouting out. The man warns the parrot that bad language is not acceptable in his house, and that there will be serious consequences if he continues using such language.
The parrot continues to shout out obscenities regardless, so as a punishment, the man puts the parrot in the freezer to ‘teach him a lesson’. After several hours, he releases the parrot from the freezer, hoping that his punishment will have the desired effect. The parrot, shivering from the cold, his rebellious spirit now broken from his ordeal, apologises and then nervously asks the man “so…. what did the chicken do?”

A few of the teachers burst out laughing. The students remained largely silent, desperately wanting to laugh, but just not getting what was funny.

They were as bewildered as the parrot, confused about why a chicken would be in the freezer.

Why? Because they had no cultural context for the joke. 

Cultural context is important.

For one, they were teenagers – what they did know about the contents of a freezer apart from ice cream?  Absolutely zilch (zero). Added to that, the majority of the students came from Asian countries with no tradition of keeping frozen chickens in the freezer as food – the idea itself is culturally specific.

Most jokes rely on wordplay, sarcasm, subtle nuances or cultural experiences to be funny. They’re aimed at a specific audience. So rather than uniting the audience, this joke actually did the opposite. 

Glish clients are not the right audience for culturally specific humour.

Great joke, wrong audience, then? Maybe, or maybe not. Perhaps you understand the joke, but it’s just not funny to you.  Humour is very personal and individual, isn’t it? 

Another good reason for keeping jokes out of Glish conversations.

And don’t get me started on the issues of jokes being offensive or insulting! We celebrate the diversity of Glish clients and coaches, our aim is to connect, and jokes have the potential to do the opposite. 

The important thing is to take time getting to know our clients with sensitivity, establishing trust, and showing your humanity – being a real person.

Humour can be a powerful tool in creating rapport with others, but only when it can be shared, accessed and enjoyed by both client and coach.

Otherwise, it’s no laughing matter.

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