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What's in a Joke?

Before you read:

  1. What kind of jokes do you like to tell?
  2. What jokes do you like best?
  3. Do you think different cultures have different sense of humour?

We like to be entertained. Psychologists tell us that it is good to laugh, as it helps us to relax. What’s more, the art of telling a joke is an important social skill. Those who are good at it enjoy a special status, readily accepted in any company because their jokes bring enjoyment. Jokes are good icebreakers and can help integrate a group of total strangers.



All over the world people tell jokes, but do we all laugh at the same things? Apparently we don’t. It seems that different nations have different sense of humour. For example, in Britain puns are popular, found in conversation, newspaper articles, even in the classroom, in fact everywhere. English, which contains various word and expressions that have several meanings, as well as having different words which sound the same, lends itself well to that form of humour. Many British writers, including Shakespeare, were very fond of using puns in various contexts, funny and serious alike. People in Britain find puns very entertaining.



Telling jokes in an international context is a risky business and some jokes might even be offensive to certain nationalities. Crossing cultural barriers is often impossible. Anyone who has tried to tell a joke in a foreign language knows that it is a very difficult skill both from linguistic and cultural points of view. Jokes that are funny in Polish may not be funny in English and vice versa and it is not only a question of a good translation. First of all, translating jokes word by word is not a very good idea as a lot of humour depends on subtle cultural differences or on local references.



The toughest ‘nut’ for a translator is a pun. Try translating this pun for example: Question: ‘What do you say when somebody trips?’ Answer: ‘Did you enjoy your trip?’ It’s impossible to translate into Polish, isn’t it? On the other hand, try telling one of those funny jokes from the well-known series “Przysz³a baba do lekarza” (A woman sees a doctor) in English. The joke loses its flavour in translation and British people shrug their shoulders and say ‘What for?



It seems that it is not easy to find a joke that would appeal to all nationalities. According to “The Week” (October 12th, 2002) social scientists have come to the end of a massive study to find the world’s funniest joke. The ‘Laugh Lab’ project involved telling 30,000 gags to more than two million people around the world to find one with universal appeal. The winner scored an approval rating of 65%:

“A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing, and his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his phone, and calls the emergency services. He gasps: ‘My friend is dead! What should I do!’ The operator says: ‘Calm down. Can I help? First, let’s make sure he’s dead’. There is a silence, and then a shot is heard. Back on the line, the guy says: ’Ok, now what?

Is this a good joke for a Polish audience? Is it a joke for the same reasons in every country?



The study revealed marked national differences. People in the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand preferred puns and word play, while the French and Danes were tickled by surrealism, American and Canadians laughed at jokes told at someone’s expense while in Germany, people laughed at almost anything. The Japanese, by contrast, didn’t find any of the jokes funny. In the UK, the Welsh were the most easily amused, followed by the English and the Northern Irish. The Scots lived up to their reputation for being dour and were least likely to laugh.




Discussion Points:

  • Do Polish people have a specific sense of humour?
  • What types of jokes are very popular among young people?
  • Some people believe that the art of telling jokes is a difficult one. How should jokes be told?
  • What types of jokes do you find offensive?

Classroom activity:

Write the joke about the two hunters from New Jersey as a gapped text. Delete every fifth word. Then ask your students to fill in the gaps. When the text has been completed ask one of the students to read it aloud.

Now wipe off some of the words again. The students should be able to fill in the gaps without any difficulty. This is a good way to learn the text by heart. You may then ask your students to prepare jokes to be told aloud in the classroom as if they had an audience of non-Poles. Then you could vote on whether such a joke would be funny to such an audience or not, and why.


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