Emily Blunt, the UK-born actress, has been in trouble for saying that she had watched the Republican presidential candidate debates shortly after becoming a US citizen and wondered if she had made a terrible mistake. “What have I done?” she said.
A Fox News commentator said she should leave Hollywood if she felt that way and “let some American women take on the roles that you’re getting, because Americans are watching your movies and lining your pockets”.
Ms Blunt’s comment, for which she has apologised, was clearly not meant seriously. She lives in the US and has an American husband and child. And we should not assume everyone shares Fox News’s outrage. But there are dangers when joking away from home.
I long ago discovered that American corporate contacts who were jocular on many subjects often went quiet at any lightheartedness about their own company, even if they were not very senior and, it subsequently transpired, were not very happy there.
How funny you should try to be in a culture not your own is a fraught issue. I once attended an all-day press briefing in Chicago at which I was the only non-American journalist present. At lunch, the organisers brought a troupe of entertainers in to perform an improvised routine along the lines of the UK television show Whose Line is it Anyway?
The comedians needed some cues for their act and asked us who we found most annoying during our working day. As people nominated editors, the IT department and public relations companies, I piped up “readers” — which died in the suddenly silent lunchtime air. Lesson learnt: in the US, you don’t disrespect the customer. Or anywhere, actually.
(Like Ms Blunt, I must make it clear that I was joking. I value readers, who have made my privileged career possible, and while a few are annoying, you, dear reader, are not.)
One solution is not to try to be funny. But humour is an essential social lubricant. It is central to personal relationships — Sigmund Freud, quoting the German writer Jean Paul, said “wit is the disguised priest who unites every couple” — and it is useful in business too.
Jokes ease meetings and, if you can tell them, encourage audiences to stay awake during speeches. A Finnish friend once told me that all speeches should have two jokes, except for funeral speeches, which should have one.
All cultures value humour. In a 2001 paper, “Singaporean Humour: A Cross-Cultural, Cross-Gender Comparison”, academics from Haifa university and the National University of Singapore compared the jokes of students in Singapore, Israel and the US. They found that, while the Americans’ jokes were more sexual and the Singaporeans more aggressive, they were all pretty much the same.
“Humour is a universal human phenomenon, present in both tribal and industrialised societies,” the researchers wrote. People everywhere laughed at the same kind of jokes. “They include exaggeration, invective, understatement, witty cynicism, unexpected twists of logic, verbal irony, disguise and deception, as well as the appeal to . . . superiority over victims of small misfortunes.”
This is all true, but it fails to take account of local sensitivities. Even within societies, there are differences over jokes involving sex or religion.
People can also get away with making jokes about their own group that others cannot, and locals have a surer sense of what is politically permissible than people from outside.
I once heard a leading Singaporean executive speak to a large gathering in London. It was stormy outside and he began by saying what a pleasure it was to be back in England where every conversation began with the weather.
“I think the reason Singaporeans are so boring is that the weather never changes,” he said. “A bit like the government.”
That got both laughs and gasps, but as he went on to greater things back home he clearly knew what he was allowed to joke about.
Are there any safe areas for jokes? Travel disasters usually entertain, and everyone likes to have a go at the airlines.
You will usually get a laugh at the graffiti someone added to British Airways’ old Concorde advertisement, rendering it: “Breakfast in London, lunch in New York. Luggage in Brazil.”
Just don’t tell it to a room with BA managers in — as I once did.
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