No ethnic joke: developing an international sense of humor

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in community,culture,identity,origin,self-image

laughter by S.Melamed

By SARAH MELAMED

When I evolved from a student and tourist in Israel to a citizen, I integrated into all facets of Israeli life. Except for one thing — the humor.

What a culture finds funny takes longer to translate.

For many years I did not get it, sitting awkwardly as those around me laughed. I was teased for being “an American with no sense of humor.”

If I tried New York-style sarcasm, or self-deprecation, exaggerations, deadpan or word play, they were taken at face value. Instead of displaying camaraderie and wit, my attempts to be amusing made me seem eccentric, and slow. Rather than connect me, humor amplified the very differences I wanted to reduce.

Even though the history of Jewish humor is long and nuanced, an entire comedy subculture of early Israeli movies and radio programs is built on wooden stereotyped characters from the common denominators of Israeli life: immigrant interactions, especially between European Jews and those from the Arab countries. The army — which I was never part of.

Not only has my perception of humor changed since I arrived at Ben Gurion University in the early ’90s, the country’s whimsy has also changed.  Israel has become less introspective and more of a global country. Its humor has switched from being about insider jokes to the quirkiness of the human experience, a language everybody understands.

In the digital age cross-cultural connections develop into a shared sense of humor.  But globalization won’t erase regional humor, and I’ll bet the English will still think the Germans have no sense of humor, the Americans will be offended by the French, and those Newfoundlanders will find everything funny.

Ever been sidelined by a society’s witticism? Has your country developed a more international sense of humor?

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Sarah Melamed is an American food blogger from Israel, interested in ethnic food, culture and history.
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  • http://rpsinc.ca/blog Lee-Anne Ragan

    Our brains are working hard when decoding humour. Is this really funny or what?! A true test of learning another language is if you can understand that language’s humour.

    Interestingly, the same part of our brain responsible for decoding humour is also responsible for other sophisticated thinking processes like critical thinking, strategic thinking and innovation. The strategic use of humour (and I underscore strategic, no group groans here) can prime our brains for being more innovative.

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  • http://www.bazaarbayar.etsy.com Catherine Bayar

    For a country as macho as it is, major companies Turkcell and Vodafone both have cross-dressing commercials on Turkish air now…large hairy men dressed as a bride or a nurse. (You know, identities that are non-threatening for women to have.) Hard to believe this silly tactic really sells phones here. Cannot imagine such an ad being successful in the US!

  • http://www.bazaarbayar.blogspot.com Catherine Bayar

    For a country as macho as it is, major companies Turkcell and Vodafone both have cross-dressing commercials on Turkish air now…large hairy men dressed as a bride or a nurse. (You know, identities that are non-threatening for women to have.) Hard to believe this silly tactic really sells phones here. Cannot imagine such an ad being successful in the US!

  • http://www.Sezin.org Sezin

    Laughter is such an important thing in life and this conversation is fascinating with regards to all the different ways people around the world approach humour. Great links as well, made me chuckle. :-)

    I think so much of comedy is having an understanding of the person’s intentions, and by extension how the culture finds ways to poke fun. With my hodgepodge of cultures, I tend to appreciate straightforward humour. Sarcasm doesn’t work with me at all, I just get a puzzled look on my face as I try to figure out if the person is making fun of me or something else. My own blend of humour tends to be very cerebral, referencing films and texts I’ve seen a million times but that most people have only seen or read once at best. But hey, at least I make myself laugh. And now that my husband has been exposed to more of the building blocks that make up my jokes he’s started to be hip to my style too. Only took us 4 years though. ;-)

    Well done, Sarah!

    • http://www.sarahmelamed.com Sarah

      what wonderful insights about humor and culture, things that I have not thought about or realized.
      Sezin, It is interesting that with so many cultures you have been exposed to, you have lost the reference point to judge sarcasm by. That is one type of humor I have learned to use less of because I am taken at face value. There is nothing more annoying then backtracking out of humor “no, no! I was only joking….”
      .-= Sarah’s latest blog ..Ka’ak-Savory Spiced Ring Biscuits =-.

  • http://www.Sezin.org Sezin

    Laughter is such an important thing in life and this conversation is fascinating with regards to all the different ways people around the world approach humour. Great links as well, made me chuckle. :-)

    I think so much of comedy is having an understanding of the person’s intentions, and by extension how the culture finds ways to poke fun. With my hodgepodge of cultures, I tend to appreciate straightforward humour. Sarcasm doesn’t work with me at all, I just get a puzzled look on my face as I try to figure out if the person is making fun of me or something else. My own blend of humour tends to be very cerebral, referencing films and texts I’ve seen a million times but that most people have only seen or read once at best. But hey, at least I make myself laugh. And now that my husband has been exposed to more of the building blocks that make up my jokes he’s started to be hip to my style too. Only took us 4 years though. ;-)

    Well done, Sarah!

    • http://www.sarahmelamed.com Sarah

      what wonderful insights about humor and culture, things that I have not thought about or realized.
      Sezin, It is interesting that with so many cultures you have been exposed to, you have lost the reference point to judge sarcasm by. That is one type of humor I have learned to use less of because I am taken at face value. There is nothing more annoying then backtracking out of humor “no, no! I was only joking….”
      .-= Sarah’s latest blog ..Ka’ak-Savory Spiced Ring Biscuits =-.

  • kari m.

    Another well written post and interesting topic, thank you Sara. Isn`t this topic quite timely here since humour often touches the very core of what we identify with in a culture, be it our native culture or an adopted one. Apart from whether we have a ‘well developed’ sense of humour or not, isn`t finding something funny in the first place something that occurs because we easily relate to it? We laugh at clowns and comedians because they make us relate to emotions that are often less accessible — they can make us smile and nod knowingly in agreement. :-) In order to share a joke with cultural references we have to know on a deeper level where these references are coming from… as I`ve come to understand from reading all the interesting comments here.

  • kari m.

    Another well written post and interesting topic, thank you Sara. Isn`t this topic quite timely here since humour often touches the very core of what we identify with in a culture, be it our native culture or an adopted one. Apart from whether we have a ‘well developed’ sense of humour or not, isn`t finding something funny in the first place something that occurs because we easily relate to it? We laugh at clowns and comedians because they make us relate to emotions that are often less accessible — they can make us smile and nod knowingly in agreement. :-) In order to share a joke with cultural references we have to know on a deeper level where these references are coming from… as I`ve come to understand from reading all the interesting comments here.

  • http://thefutureisred.com Leigh

    I wrote a paper in college trying to define humor, particularly the differences in dark humor. I was never able to finish the paper because just as I thought I’d grasped a reasoning, it would slip away from me.

    There is something truly indefinable about what makes us laugh.

    In Israel, I think much of it is rather dark and straight forward. Yet somehow manages to be extremely subtle in its straightforwardness. American humor tends to be a bit more absurd. Maybe?

    Either way, you have me thinking about humor again.

    • http://www.sarahmelamed.com Sarah

      humor is constantly evolving and changing, no wonder you had a hard time finishing your paper, so hard to define. Perception of humor is both learned and involuntary and very much associated with a culture and region.
      .-= Sarah’s latest blog ..Ghormeh Sabzi and My Food Photography Course =-.

      • Anastasia

        Thanks for this post Sarah.

        You and Leigh make a good point here about the evolution of humor. I can see the same comedy movie on different days and either find it hilarious, or not funny at all. Same person. Just different frame of mind. Imagine that extrapolated out to a family, a culture, a nation, and all the forces that shift a frame of mind.

        However I’ve found Benny Hill funny when I didn’t have the ‘background’ to since I’m not British, but plenty of American humor I think is dumb so you could say I’ve been sidelined by my own country’s humor, to a point!

        It is a strange phenomenon to be told you don’t have a sense of humor when in fact your humor simply doesn’t mesh with the people around you. Definitely has happened to me!

  • http://thefutureisred.com Leigh

    I wrote a paper in college trying to define humor, particularly the differences in dark humor. I was never able to finish the paper because just as I thought I’d grasped a reasoning, it would slip away from me.

    There is something truly indefinable about what makes us laugh.

    In Israel, I think much of it is rather dark and straight forward. Yet somehow manages to be extremely subtle in its straightforwardness. American humor tends to be a bit more absurd. Maybe?

    Either way, you have me thinking about humor again.

    • http://www.sarahmelamed.com Sarah

      humor is constantly evolving and changing, no wonder you had a hard time finishing your paper, so hard to define. Perception of humor is both learned and involuntary and very much associated with a culture and region.
      .-= Sarah’s latest blog ..Ghormeh Sabzi and My Food Photography Course =-.

      • http://www.expatharem.com/identity-messages/ Anastasia

        Thanks for this post Sarah.

        You and Leigh make a good point here about the evolution of humor. I can see the same comedy movie on different days and either find it hilarious, or not funny at all. Same person. Just different frame of mind. Imagine that extrapolated out to a family, a culture, a nation, and all the forces that shift a frame of mind.

        However I’ve found Benny Hill funny when I didn’t have the ‘background’ to since I’m not British, but plenty of American humor I think is dumb so you could say I’ve been sidelined by my own country’s humor, to a point!

        It is a strange phenomenon to be told you don’t have a sense of humor when in fact your humor simply doesn’t mesh with the people around you. Definitely has happened to me!

  • http://www.sarahmelamed.com Sarah

    Isao,
    Very true, kibbutz being human missle shields would not be considered funny.
    From someone just casually visiting and without understanding how interconnected this little country is, it would seem like a legitimate topic for humor. Topics that border on political, on dark parts of a country’s history and death are sometimes a bit too intense to be considered funny. I am sure this is not specific only to Israel.
    That said, I thought the bodyguard joke was funny…

    Joe, My husband, who travels often to both the US and Asia found this out quickly.
    In Japan, maybe not means never in a million years (saying No is considered rude apparently) In Israel Maybe not can often turn to yes.
    .-= Sarah’s latest blog ..Bedouin Tea =-.

  • http://www.sarahmelamed.com Sarah

    Isao,
    Very true, kibbutz being human missle shields would not be considered funny.
    From someone just casually visiting and without understanding how interconnected this little country is, it would seem like a legitimate topic for humor. Topics that border on political, on dark parts of a country’s history and death are sometimes a bit too intense to be considered funny. I am sure this is not specific only to Israel.
    That said, I thought the bodyguard joke was funny…

    Joe, My husband, who travels often to both the US and Asia found this out quickly.
    In Japan, maybe not means never in a million years (saying No is considered rude apparently) In Israel Maybe not can often turn to yes.
    .-= Sarah’s latest blog ..Bedouin Tea =-.

  • http://thechangingman.livejournal.com/ Joe

    Years ago I worked with an Isreali company. We both got cultural lessons on how to deal with each other.

    We were told that when, in a meeting, an Israeli says “No way. We will never, ever do that,” they mean “Oh, thats interesting. We should think about that”. They were told that when the English say “Oh, thats interesting. We should think about that” they mean “No way. We will never, ever do that.”

    • http://www.istanbulblogger.com istanbulblogger

      “Oh, thats interesting. We should think about that” they mean “No way. We will never, ever do that.” baffled by that if I was to quote “Oh, thats interesting. We should think about that” that is what it means and shouldn’t be interpreted into anything else ,it merely is a quote of curiosity without abandoning the thought or idea.
      How the grammar struggles to translate smoothly my wife has a bad habit saying “you are scaring me” when I feel unwell in fact she is saying I am concerned quite a scary phrase to someone with a laid back background like me.
      .-= istanbulblogger’s latest blog ..Istanbul:A Diverse Photographic City =-.

  • http://thechangingman.livejournal.com/ Joe

    Years ago I worked with an Isreali company. We both got cultural lessons on how to deal with each other.

    We were told that when, in a meeting, an Israeli says “No way. We will never, ever do that,” they mean “Oh, thats interesting. We should think about that”. They were told that when the English say “Oh, thats interesting. We should think about that” they mean “No way. We will never, ever do that.”

    • http://www.istanbulblogger.com istanbulblogger

      “Oh, thats interesting. We should think about that” they mean “No way. We will never, ever do that.” baffled by that if I was to quote “Oh, thats interesting. We should think about that” that is what it means and shouldn’t be interpreted into anything else ,it merely is a quote of curiosity without abandoning the thought or idea.
      How the grammar struggles to translate smoothly my wife has a bad habit saying “you are scaring me” when I feel unwell in fact she is saying I am concerned quite a scary phrase to someone with a laid back background like me.
      .-= istanbulblogger’s latest blog ..Istanbul:A Diverse Photographic City =-.

  • http://thechangingman.livejournal.com/ Joe

    A few days after getting my Turkish citizenship one of my fellow teachers gave me a letter whilst at school.
    It was The Call Up. Report for millitary service.
    My wife had warned me that the most (only?) efficent organisation in Turkey is the Army, this seemed a bit quick off the mark. Plus – why send it to the school? The school wasn’t mentioned in any of my application paperwork. And why are all the teachers in the staff room for once? And why are they grinning?

    Ahh – it was a wind up. Ha. Ha. Ha.

    I actually really appreciated the time and effort put into the joke. It made me feel a real part of the staff room.

    PS – I am too old for millitary service. I hope.

  • http://thechangingman.livejournal.com/ Joe

    A few days after getting my Turkish citizenship one of my fellow teachers gave me a letter whilst at school.
    It was The Call Up. Report for millitary service.
    My wife had warned me that the most (only?) efficent organisation in Turkey is the Army, this seemed a bit quick off the mark. Plus – why send it to the school? The school wasn’t mentioned in any of my application paperwork. And why are all the teachers in the staff room for once? And why are they grinning?

    Ahh – it was a wind up. Ha. Ha. Ha.

    I actually really appreciated the time and effort put into the joke. It made me feel a real part of the staff room.

    PS – I am too old for millitary service. I hope.

  • http://www.isaokato.com/ Isao

    Having once worked at an Israeli company, I exchanged some cultural humors with my Israeli colleagues. They were without exception great satirists, and I thought “Hey, who said Israeli is a closed country?,” feeling that if I could choose my imaginary home country as a satire-loving TCK, Israel might be it.

    That naive notion changed slightly when I was watching the 2004 Olympics opening ceremony with my friends in Tel Aviv. The host was an Israeli-Japanese couple, and when the Japanese wife mentioned “Oh, they’re having an athlete and 29 bodyguards” to a crowd of 30 Israeli athletes, the husband quickly slapped “Hey, you can’t say that!”

    I had similar experiences elsewhere – there is an invisible yet very tangible line of can-dos and cannot-dos and people live through that maze as if it does not exist. Joke was no exception. I could ramble endlessly about the bad traffic jam, badder table manner, and baddest airport security incidents, but I couldn’t have joked about Kibbutz being human missile shields (unless I knew the proper signals and context).

    Maybe it is like a design being more creative due to the restrictions – you become funny because you know where to draw the line. I love Israel, my friends there, and their humor, but I am still not sure if I want to live by those rules, even if they make me more imaginative. I honestly don’t know. I gotta go back there… thank you for your stimulating post!

  • http://www.isaokato.com/ Isao

    Having once worked at an Israeli company, I exchanged some cultural humors with my Israeli colleagues. They were without exception great satirists, and I thought “Hey, who said Israeli is a closed country?,” feeling that if I could choose my imaginary home country as a satire-loving TCK, Israel might be it.

    That naive notion changed slightly when I was watching the 2004 Olympics opening ceremony with my friends in Tel Aviv. The host was an Israeli-Japanese couple, and when the Japanese wife mentioned “Oh, they’re having an athlete and 29 bodyguards” to a crowd of 30 Israeli athletes, the husband quickly slapped “Hey, you can’t say that!”

    I had similar experiences elsewhere – there is an invisible yet very tangible line of can-dos and cannot-dos and people live through that maze as if it does not exist. Joke was no exception. I could ramble endlessly about the bad traffic jam, badder table manner, and baddest airport security incidents, but I couldn’t have joked about Kibbutz being human missile shields (unless I knew the proper signals and context).

    Maybe it is like a design being more creative due to the restrictions – you become funny because you know where to draw the line. I love Israel, my friends there, and their humor, but I am still not sure if I want to live by those rules, even if they make me more imaginative. I honestly don’t know. I gotta go back there… thank you for your stimulating post!

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/knitbox Figen Cakir

    Ive often wondered about that in the past, as being an American is not the same as being a German, for example. A German is exactly what it says on the packaging. When you get a mixture – like me – descriptions get lengthier, but are still precise and definitive. I’ve met more Americans here in Turkey than I ever have anywhere else in my entire life and I now realise that when people say ‘I’m an American’ they’re really talking about a joint nationality in which they’ve been brought up, or the umbrella under which all the diverse identities have merged, or which passport they hold – their packaging, if you like – and not their identity or culture. With increasing diversity in Britain, it’s the same there now, too. So, I understand why Sarah would say she’s an American. I hope I haven’t been presumptuous : )

  • http://www.sarahmelamed.com Sarah

    Istanbulblogger,
    Strange, I remember watching popular English comedy programs in the States (Benny Hill, Keeping up Appearances..) but your’re right, that type of humor never really integrated. Americans seem a bit too careful about unintentionally insulting anyone, part of being politically correct I suppose. Israel is getting better but you still might be taking a risk by saying things like “you got a backside like a builders crack” or “I admire your balls for posting that photo” not sure how well that would go down with the inlaws.
    .-= Sarah’s latest blog ..Bedouin Tea =-.

    • http://www.istanbulblogger.com istanbulblogger

      sarah thats just it we are not insulting when we laugh and joke at our/your mistakes,probably we are looking for something good from a bad situation. also the tone of voice plays a big part in it probably why a broken accented english accent doesn’t carry over to my ears and vice versa for those not understanding some of our humor.
      being politically correct that dreaded awful phrase I began to hear so much in england “like it is not being politically correct when you fly your national flag because it may offend someone “… great topic looking forward to hear others comments ..
      .-= istanbulblogger’s latest blog ..Istanbul:A Diverse Photographic City =-.

  • http://www.sarahmelamed.com Sarah

    Istanbulblogger,
    Strange, I remember watching popular English comedy programs in the States (Benny Hill, Keeping up Appearances..) but your’re right, that type of humor never really integrated. Americans seem a bit too careful about unintentionally insulting anyone, part of being politically correct I suppose. Israel is getting better but you still might be taking a risk by saying things like “you got a backside like a builders crack” or “I admire your balls for posting that photo” not sure how well that would go down with the inlaws.
    .-= Sarah’s latest blog ..Bedouin Tea =-.

    • http://www.istanbulblogger.com istanbulblogger

      sarah thats just it we are not insulting when we laugh and joke at our/your mistakes,probably we are looking for something good from a bad situation. also the tone of voice plays a big part in it probably why a broken accented english accent doesn’t carry over to my ears and vice versa for those not understanding some of our humor.
      being politically correct that dreaded awful phrase I began to hear so much in england “like it is not being politically correct when you fly your national flag because it may offend someone “… great topic looking forward to hear others comments ..
      .-= istanbulblogger’s latest blog ..Istanbul:A Diverse Photographic City =-.

  • Marryam

    Self-deprecating? What on earth’s that? We in India go into paroxysms every time we see someone slip on a banana peel. To our delight, it has been happening metaphorically rather often in the political arena! Word play did you say? Never heard of it.

    • Anastasia

      Marryam, it’s intriguing that such an old culture would love slapstick (you’d think the ages would wear everything down to subtlety)….

    • http://www.Sezin.org Sezin

      Marryam! Yes! I remember this aspect of Indians from when I lived there. Like the more dramatic the humour the better Indians respond to it. I wonder if this has to do with the rich cultural history of dance, where the costumes are usually very grand and colorful with very big gestures, intricate though they may be. Now I am missing India, but in a good way. I have lots of great memories from that beautiful place:-)

  • Marryam

    Self-deprecating? What on earth’s that? We in India go into paroxysms every time we see someone slip on a banana peel. To our delight, it has been happening metaphorically rather often in the political arena! Word play did you say? Never heard of it.

    • http://www.expatharem.com/identity-messages/ Anastasia

      Marryam, it’s intriguing that such an old culture would love slapstick (you’d think the ages would wear everything down to subtlety)….

    • http://www.Sezin.org Sezin

      Marryam! Yes! I remember this aspect of Indians from when I lived there. Like the more dramatic the humour the better Indians respond to it. I wonder if this has to do with the rich cultural history of dance, where the costumes are usually very grand and colorful with very big gestures, intricate though they may be. Now I am missing India, but in a good way. I have lots of great memories from that beautiful place:-)

  • http://www.sarahmelamed.com Sarah

    What I also learned after all these years is that some people just don’t have a sense of humor in whatever language or culture.
    Jennifer, Curse words! I fogot about that. I would sprinkle newly learned curse words generously in the conversation, not completely aware of their meaning and making a spectacle of myself (to the great amusement of everyone else).
    Figen, In Israel, as well English humor is often taken literally. I am forever getting strange looks when I mean completely the opposite- saying “I can’t deal with such cold weather” on a sweltering day, for ex.

  • http://www.sarahmelamed.com Sarah

    What I also learned after all these years is that some people just don’t have a sense of humor in whatever language or culture.
    Jennifer, Curse words! I fogot about that. I would sprinkle newly learned curse words generously in the conversation, not completely aware of their meaning and making a spectacle of myself (to the great amusement of everyone else).
    Figen, In Israel, as well English humor is often taken literally. I am forever getting strange looks when I mean completely the opposite- saying “I can’t deal with such cold weather” on a sweltering day, for ex.

  • http://www.dividingmytime.typepad.com Jennifer Eremeeva

    I used some Russian curse words about a million years ago and my husband sat me down and explained to me very seriously that I could never ever use those words again — no one who wished to be understood as a “lady” could. Words I had no trouble using in English carried far more filthy and perverse connotations in Russian, even through the dictionary says they are one and the same. So, I never do use them, only say something like, so and so is a word that begins with “p” which seems okay. Another thing to tip toe around.
    .-= Jennifer Eremeeva’s latest blog ..Day of the Divers/День водолаза: Really Expensive Sports For A Flat, Cold, Landlocked City =-.

    • http://bazaarbayar.blogspot.com/ Catherine Bayar

      I had the same problem with English curse words when I first arrived in Turkey. My casual usage of “oh, f*^k” or “no “f’ing way” – terms used like punctuation in California and meaning next to nothing – horrified my otherwise unflappable husband. He perceived it as being very angry and rude, not understanding my way of expressing minor frustration.

      As for delightfully vile and tongue-twisting Turkish curse words, like Sarah, I can now use them sparingly and to great effect when with a group of my husband’s friends. It’s either my atrocious pronunciation or the fact that a ‘lady’ is saying them that has them rolling with laughter. Always happy to entertain…

  • http://www.dividingmytime.typepad.com Jennifer Eremeeva

    I used some Russian curse words about a million years ago and my husband sat me down and explained to me very seriously that I could never ever use those words again — no one who wished to be understood as a “lady” could. Words I had no trouble using in English carried far more filthy and perverse connotations in Russian, even through the dictionary says they are one and the same. So, I never do use them, only say something like, so and so is a word that begins with “p” which seems okay. Another thing to tip toe around.
    .-= Jennifer Eremeeva’s latest blog ..Day of the Divers/День водолаза: Really Expensive Sports For A Flat, Cold, Landlocked City =-.

    • http://www.bazaarbayar.blogspot.com Catherine Bayar

      I had the same problem with English curse words when I first arrived in Turkey. My casual usage of “oh, f*^k” or “no “f’ing way” – terms used like punctuation in California and meaning next to nothing – horrified my otherwise unflappable husband. He perceived it as being very angry and rude, not understanding my way of expressing minor frustration.

      As for delightfully vile and tongue-twisting Turkish curse words, like Sarah, I can now use them sparingly and to great effect when with a group of my husband’s friends. It’s either my atrocious pronunciation or the fact that a ‘lady’ is saying them that has them rolling with laughter. Always happy to entertain…

  • http://yaelruder@blogspot.com Yael

    I love the way you write, but I wonder why do you still present yourself as an American in Israel, after all these years and 3 kids born and bred as Sabres, aren’t you more an Israeli who just happen to be born in America? like my friend Inna, she’s not a Russian anymore but an Israeli who was born in Siberia.

    • http://www.google.com/profiles/knitbox Figen Cakir

      Ive often wondered about that in the past, as being an American is not the same as being a German, for example. A German is exactly what it says on the packaging. When you get a mixture – like me – descriptions get lengthier, but are still precise and definitive. I’ve met more Americans here in Turkey than I ever have anywhere else in my entire life and I now realise that when people say ‘I’m an American’ they’re really talking about a joint nationality in which they’ve been brought up, or the umbrella under which all the diverse identities have merged, or which passport they hold – their packaging, if you like – and not their identity or culture. With increasing diversity in Britain, it’s the same there now, too. So, I understand why Sarah would say she’s an American. I hope I haven’t been presumptuous : )

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/knitbox Figen Cakir

    Brilliant post! If I had a penny for every faux pas I made here over the years I’d be a billionaire. My British sense of humour just doesn’t go down well here at all. British humour likes to look at the naughty side of things, and self-deprecation and irony features in a big, big way as does potty humour. And, I have a feeling you would get punched in the face in Turkey if you made a deprecating joke about anybody to their face. In Britain we can say ‘my word what a big behind you have, does it get stuck in doors’ and at worse get a giggle in response. At best, an equally sarcastic comeback. It’s also a total no-no for a woman in Turkey to participate in any innuendo speak, particularly regarding sex. I was never into smutty jokes anyway, and would roll my eyes at perpetual sexual innuendos but being restricted now amplifies the fact that I couldn’t make the perfect comeback at the perfect opening even if I wanted to. Irony and especially leg-pulling can be met with blank looks. And, I think that’s the worst of it all – the blank looks when you think you’ve been sooo funny!

    Intentional humour aside, when I was first in Turkey for a long stretch and really getting into Turkish, I sometimes took words I’d learned in their literal, or verb, sense. Not a good idea when you tell a panting woman arriving late, at a dinner party, that ‘wow, you’ve been such a slut today’ after she explains the many things she’d had to do all day. I’d grossly misunderstood a word I’d newly heard (surtuk) to mean ‘someone who is out and about, never indoors, all day’. Could have heard a pin drop. My husband has been re-telling it as an anecdote for the past 18 years.

    Has anybody else used a word in such a misguided and embarrassing context??

    PS. Sarah, I am now seriously addicted to your food blog and jotting down a shopping list as we speak : )

    • http://www.istanbulblogger.com/ istanbulblogger

      HUMOUR americans just dont have the quality of english sense of humour we find no problem in laughing at our mistakes in life ,the way we dressed with the hairstyles of our youth years.I recently commented on someones school photo who is american ,it was not ugly or offensive “I admire your balls for posting that photo” yet she was deeply offended and misunderstood the humour .I dont want to offend any americans directly by my comment but I guess humour will vary across the languages . as for german humour I just dont get it and I guess I now (thanks to this post) understand why the american didnt understand my humour. Figen my wife turkish cant get enough of the english humour and phrases we use,she is addicted to the Only fools and horses and absoblutely fabulous,catherine tate,benny hill,dads army you name it she spends hours of laughter “i quote recently to my wife whilst we were decorating “you got a backside like a builders crack” she fell over in laughter ,I wasnt being offensive it was just a funny site .
      our UK english humour may not translate so well in grammar and perhaps that is why it is not understood or misinterpreted so often in company of a another spoken language. another topical great post ,you do have a knack anastasia for getting topical .brian
      .-= istanbulblogger’s latest blog ..Istanbul:A Diverse Photographic City =-.

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/knitbox Figen Cakir

    Brilliant post! If I had a penny for every faux pas I made here over the years I’d be a billionaire. My British sense of humour just doesn’t go down well here at all. British humour likes to look at the naughty side of things, and self-deprecation and irony features in a big, big way as does potty humour. And, I have a feeling you would get punched in the face in Turkey if you made a deprecating joke about anybody to their face. In Britain we can say ‘my word what a big behind you have, does it get stuck in doors’ and at worse get a giggle in response. At best, an equally sarcastic comeback. It’s also a total no-no for a woman in Turkey to participate in any innuendo speak, particularly regarding sex. I was never into smutty jokes anyway, and would roll my eyes at perpetual sexual innuendos but being restricted now amplifies the fact that I couldn’t make the perfect comeback at the perfect opening even if I wanted to. Irony and especially leg-pulling can be met with blank looks. And, I think that’s the worst of it all – the blank looks when you think you’ve been sooo funny!

    Intentional humour aside, when I was first in Turkey for a long stretch and really getting into Turkish, I sometimes took words I’d learned in their literal, or verb, sense. Not a good idea when you tell a panting woman arriving late, at a dinner party, that ‘wow, you’ve been such a slut today’ after she explains the many things she’d had to do all day. I’d grossly misunderstood a word I’d newly heard (surtuk) to mean ‘someone who is out and about, never indoors, all day’. Could have heard a pin drop. My husband has been re-telling it as an anecdote for the past 18 years.

    Has anybody else used a word in such a misguided and embarrassing context??

    PS. Sarah, I am now seriously addicted to your food blog and jotting down a shopping list as we speak : )

    • http://www.istanbulblogger.com/ istanbulblogger

      HUMOUR americans just dont have the quality of english sense of humour we find no problem in laughing at our mistakes in life ,the way we dressed with the hairstyles of our youth years.I recently commented on someones school photo who is american ,it was not ugly or offensive “I admire your balls for posting that photo” yet she was deeply offended and misunderstood the humour .I dont want to offend any americans directly by my comment but I guess humour will vary across the languages . as for german humour I just dont get it and I guess I now (thanks to this post) understand why the american didnt understand my humour. Figen my wife turkish cant get enough of the english humour and phrases we use,she is addicted to the Only fools and horses and absoblutely fabulous,catherine tate,benny hill,dads army you name it she spends hours of laughter “i quote recently to my wife whilst we were decorating “you got a backside like a builders crack” she fell over in laughter ,I wasnt being offensive it was just a funny site .
      our UK english humour may not translate so well in grammar and perhaps that is why it is not understood or misinterpreted so often in company of a another spoken language. another topical great post ,you do have a knack anastasia for getting topical .brian
      .-= istanbulblogger’s latest blog ..Istanbul:A Diverse Photographic City =-.

  • http://www.sarahmelamed.com Sarah

    When my American relatives come to visit and try English wordplay with the Israeli part of my family it is often received with a lukewarm “hehe”. But I wonder why word play is not appreciated if you try it in the local language – is it because you are entering a territory that belongs to the local culture and not to outsiders?

    Don’t worry, after all these years I can laugh at the old Israeli comedy movies, what I used to think just silly and pointless.
    .-= Sarah’s latest blog ..Bedouin Tea =-.

  • http://www.sarahmelamed.com Sarah

    When my American relatives come to visit and try English wordplay with the Israeli part of my family it is often received with a lukewarm “hehe”. But I wonder why word play is not appreciated if you try it in the local language – is it because you are entering a territory that belongs to the local culture and not to outsiders?

    Don’t worry, after all these years I can laugh at the old Israeli comedy movies, what I used to think just silly and pointless.
    .-= Sarah’s latest blog ..Bedouin Tea =-.

  • http://www.dutchessabroad.com Judith van Praag

    Oh, Sarah, I feel for you and am relieved by the latter part of your post that speaks of a more universal/ global sense of humor that connects you to those around you.

    If I’m sidelined in America, it’s usually because I put my Dutch foot in my mouth. Luckily such an act is often funny enough to draw me right back into the circle. On the other hand, I’ve noticed wordplay, in the language which from the sound of my voice, is not my first, isn’t always appreciated. It’s as though people don’t believe their ears ; )

  • Anonymous

    Oh, Sarah, I feel for you and am relieved by the latter part of your post that speaks of a more universal/ global sense of humor that connects you to those around you.

    If I’m sidelined in America, it’s usually because I put my Dutch foot in my mouth. Luckily such an act is often funny enough to draw me right back into the circle. On the other hand, I’ve noticed wordplay, in the language which from the sound of my voice, is not my first, isn’t always appreciated. It’s as though people don’t believe their ears ; )

  • http://www.sarahmelamed.com Sarah

    Parodies and satires are especially hard to translate and very popular in Israel as in many parts of the world. It is difficult to understand this type of humor if you are not immersed in the everyday culture but when you can laugh on cue it feels like home.
    Does this mean you lose something of your old humor?
    .-= Sarah’s latest blog ..Bedouin Tea =-.

  • http://www.sarahmelamed.com Sarah

    Parodies and satires are especially hard to translate and very popular in Israel as in many parts of the world. It is difficult to understand this type of humor if you are not immersed in the everyday culture but when you can laugh on cue it feels like home.
    Does this mean you lose something of your old humor?
    .-= Sarah’s latest blog ..Bedouin Tea =-.

  • http://www.dividingmytime.typepad.com Jennifer Eremeeva

    Sarah, this is an interesting point. Humor may be the last bastion to conquer for someone living in another country, and, although humor is universal, perhaps it is also very parochial as well. I do know that learning my adopted country’s humor (Russia — which sounds as quirky and specific as your Israel) has been one of the things I’m most proud of…and it is a thing I love sharing with my husband.
    .-= Jennifer Eremeeva’s latest blog ..Day of the Divers/День водолаза: Really Expensive Sports For A Flat, Cold, Landlocked City =-.

  • http://www.dividingmytime.typepad.com Jennifer Eremeeva

    Sarah, this is an interesting point. Humor may be the last bastion to conquer for someone living in another country, and, although humor is universal, perhaps it is also very parochial as well. I do know that learning my adopted country’s humor (Russia — which sounds as quirky and specific as your Israel) has been one of the things I’m most proud of…and it is a thing I love sharing with my husband.
    .-= Jennifer Eremeeva’s latest blog ..Day of the Divers/День водолаза: Really Expensive Sports For A Flat, Cold, Landlocked City =-.

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