Tag Archives: Argentina

How to Tell Anyone, Anywhere That They Are Not Funny

2477I’ll admit it: I am terrible at telling jokes.  I’ve got two or three reliable ones but even they fall flat with alarming frequency.  I always mess something up.  I forget the punch line; I omit a key detail; I forget where I am and tell a joke that only works in Sweden – you get the picture.  I could live in denial and make believe that peoples’ laughter comes from them laughing “with” me as opposed to them laughing “at” me, but my friends have disabused me of any such thinking.  They’ll try to assure me that I can be humorous in a very general sense but then they get a serious look on their faces and say, with all the love they can muster, “But I really don’t get your jokes.”  Now let me be clear:  I have not only been told this in one country: worldwide friends have told me one way or another to steer clear of the jokes.  As I have picked myself up and dusted myself off each time, I have taken note of how people around the world tell you that you are not funny.  Here’s my guide – region by region – to telling anyone, anywhere, just that:

Scandinavia

Hit them straight.  Scandinavians are fairly direct in their communication style.  “I don’t understand” is fine if you really don’t get it.  If you are friends with a Scandinavian you can be even more direct: “That wasn’t funny at all”.  Scandinavians are used to this as their brand of humor is, to say the very least, different.  And it goes both ways, they will tell you that your jokes suck without blinking an eye.

United Kingdom

A little more tact may be in order.  I personally think Brits are some of the funniest people on Earth and love the likes of Ricky Gervais (British version of “The Office”) and Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat). Some people really do not like British humor though, and it’s OK to say so.  Brits love apologies (sit in any British train station and listen to announcements about train delays or cancellations: The announcer will apologize for EVERYTHING) so try, “Sorry, I think this British humor is a little over my head, give me a few weeks and maybe I’ll pick it up…”  Of course, if the intent is to avoid hearing any more from the amateur comic in question, don’t invite them to keep trying out their material on you.

United States

Laugh.  Americans are a tough bunch to speak for in any general sense because of the sheer diversity in represented cultures.  But warmth goes a long way, so show some appreciation for the fact that your American friend was trying to be funny.  If you are from a more reserved culture, realize that while people in some cultures communicate through understatement (the Brits are a perfect example), Americans often communicate through over-statement.  They may say something is “the funniest thing ever” or “the most hilarious show I have seen in my entire life”.  They probably don’t mean it. Smile enthusiastically, laugh a little and then switch the channel to FOX News – it won’t be funny at all.

South America

When I lived in South America I met some people that I found really funny and some people that made me want to take a fork to my eye.  Naturally, the cultures I came across – Peruvian, Argentine, Uruguayan, Brazilian, whatever – all came with their own brand of humor.  Most of the humor I came across was delivered with high volume, enthusiasm and a lot of passion.  Trust me: You looked like an idiot if, after the punch line, you just sat their and scratched your head.  So here’s what I did: I laughed at everything and then, if I didn’t get it, turned to local friends and whispered, “Why was that funny?”  South American communication stresses diplomacy and warm interpersonal relations so if I did admit to not finding something funny, I first made sure my relationship with the joker was established and safe.

Asia

Bluntness is a bad idea in Asia.  Throughout my childhood in Hong Kong and the Philippines,  I heard stories of rude, clumsy foreigners and their embarrassing antics. Communication had to be indirect, polite and always had to allow for the other party to “save face” (maintain dignity/honor).  So you did NOT tell people they were not funny.  I felt that some of the best communication in Asia happened through careful situational maneuvering.  So, if someone is not funny, smile at their overtures and then tell some of lamest jokes you know in a long, agonizing sequence (explain them as being really funny where you come from so as to avoid looking facetious).  The original offender, so completely bored by your bad jokes, will likely never try to tickle your funny bone again.

One last word – humor, if culturally appropriate, is extremely effective in communicating and problem-solving across cultural barriers.  So if you are traveling or if you are meeting with people from different parts of the world, pay special attention to what they find funny.  A shared laugh covers a multitude of cultural missteps and blunders.  Often, the first sign that you are accepted by people is that they start joking with you.  So let loose and laugh with the people you meet.  And when you come across the obligatory bore with his tired jokes, smile, remember where you are, and tell him what he needs to hear, how he needs to hear it.

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Bjorn Karlman

Same-sex Smooching

FriendsThe “beso”.  It was one of the hardest things to get used to when I moved to Buenos Aires. Hetero men and women would greet others of the same sex with a kiss on the cheek.  My Argentine friends found it hilarious that on top of my gaffes in learning Spanish (I once asked for the local “place of pleasure” instead of asking for apartment storage space), I almost cringed whenever it was time to greet guys.  It was reminiscent of my freshman days in college when I had to force my reserved Scandinavian self to greet American classmates with hugs and loud, enthusiastic banter.  But the “beso” was even more of an invasion of space.  Luckily I’d had practice with the French “bisou” (kisses on both cheeks for the opposite sex) while studying in France so I had the mechanics down.  But the fact that men were involved was unsettling.


It should be said that the mere fact that straight men kissed each other in Argentina did not at all mean that they were effeminate in other ways. In fact, Argentine culture in general seemed to encourage alpha male behavior, complete with near-belligerent cursing and heckling in the stands at soccer games.  The “beso” was simply an accepted way to greet people, whatever their sex might be.

Of course, same-sex kissing is not at all limited to Argentina, a lot of cultures find the practice perfectly normal. South Eastern Europe and some countries of South Western Europe, Latin America and the Middle East find it completely acceptable.  In the Middle East (with the exception of some moderate Islamic countries) it is more acceptable for men to kiss each other on the cheek than for men to kiss women on the cheek in public.  (A topic for a different post would be Arab male-on-male hand holding that had George W. Bush feeling a little uncomfortable when Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah was visiting the US).

How do you adjust to something like same-sex kissing if you are from a different culture?  Dive in.  It’s just like language learning – you learn best by immersion.  In my case, I had to force myself the first few times.  Then the beso got easier.  It never felt completely natural but it certainly did not bother me after a few weeks of greetings.

The challenge can be to avoid Borat-scale awkwardness by remembering where you are. When I met my former Spanish tutor from Buenos Aires on a trip to Paris in May, the beso was gone, replaced by a hug.  That same greeting between old friends, if it had taken place in Northern Europe, could well have been a simple, if somewhat prolonged, handshake.  The problems creep in when you plant a manly kiss on Bubba at the Indy 500.  That could warrant a royal kicking of an entirely different set of cheeks.

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Bjorn Karlman