Can Humour Translate?

I recently asked one of my Singaporean friends to tell me a joke; she came out with something along the following lines – ‘my friends always tell me “it’s like that, like that” and I’ll say to them “no, it’s like Mum”’. To people with little knowledge of the Singaporean accent – sometimes ‘that’ is pronounced like ‘Dad’, so due to the play on pronunciation, this joke does not translate very well outside of Singapore… 

“When a new teacher tells an un-funny joke, Chinese students do not laugh and Japanese students laugh to be polite.” (1)

For those of you new to cross-cultural teams, you may have been lucky enough to have avoided a humour-translation disaster. However, the confusion, offence or awkward silence resulting from a joke that simply does not ‘translate’ across cultures is often all-too-familiar to many working in diverse teams. This article will aim to shed some light on the best and worst kind of jokes to share with your cross-cultural team, and a little on the reasons why.


The three traditional theories of why we find things funny include the superiority theory – laughing at misfortune (e.g. a typical Mr Bean sketch), the relief theory – a comment breaks built-up tension (e.g. examples of ‘dark humour’) and the incongruity theory – things are put together in an unexpected way (e.g. we expect a logical outcome but the unexpected happens).

Whilst we are often familiar with differing joke styles and formats; self-deprecating, puns or plays on words, sarcasm, exaggeration and so on, subtle and obvious cultural differences in the way we view ourselves or the world can have a big impact on the extent to which we find something to be funny (2). There are many cross-cultural differences in preferences when it comes to humour – for example a study on students found those from Hong Kong to prefer conservative, wise humour whilst American students preferred aggressive or sexual jokes (3).


Many people working in cross-cultural or diverse team are able to recall a moment when a colleague has shared something inappropriate or told a joke that has been met with a completely blank expression. One cross-cultural humour mishap was highlighted during Sabda Safdar’s 2012 TEDx Talk (4)… an Australian news reporter interviewing the Dali Lama attempts to make a joke, which goes along the following lines; ‘The Dali Lama walks into a pizza store and says – “can you make me one with everything”’. What follows is an awkward interpretation of the joke by one of the Dali Lama’s assistants and ultimately a bit of a failure to convey any of the intended humour (you can watch the clip here).

Cross-cultural humour failures often seem to be due to one of the following reasons:

  1. Translation issues with a play-on-words joke, for example the similar sounding ‘four-candles’/’fork-handles’ Two Ronnies sketch (seen here), probably wouldn’t be particularly funny when translated out of English
  2. Confusion due to a lack of familiarity with cultural stereotypes, for example American ‘dumb blonde’ jokes may seem confusing to somebody who is not aware of certain stereotypes underlying the joke
  3. Cultural differences in the way we are taught to appreciate humour, for example it was proposed that the Chinese should ‘have a “thoughtful smile” (smile of the meeting of the hearts) rather than “hilarious laughter”, as the “thoughtful smile” would enable one to laugh carefully and insightfully.’ (1)


It seems that to make a ‘culture-proof’ joke, you need to avoid word play, avoid taboo topics such as race, violence or sex and focus on scenarios that are common across the world. The following joke, translated to English from Chinese Mandarin is a perfect example of culture-proof humour (6):

A married couple went out for dinner. Suddenly the wife exclaimed, "Oh! I forgot to turn off the gas! There could be a fire!" The husband tried to comfort her by saying, "Don’t worry about it. In any case, I also forgot to turn off the water faucet."

One of the most successful worldwide comedy series has been the Mr Bean programs; with over 65 million Facebook followers and 35 million videos sold in 35 territories around the world (5). What makes Mr Bean funny to so many cultures – from the English to Indians, the Chinese to Iranians, could be the avoidance of some of the most typical cultural failures… there are few issues with translation (Mr Bean rarely speaks), the comedy is typically around inadequacy and awkwardness – universally common traits and jokes are rarely featured that could cause offensive.


Cultural intelligence, the ability to adapt behaviours across cultures, can be linked to the effective use of humour in culturally diverse situations; for example in the ability to recognise what could be offensive and to appreciate the technical difficulties when ‘translating’ jokes across cultures.

At The Change School, we run bespoke, experiential corporate programs to introduce and guide you and your team through the concept of cultural intelligence. To find out more, please click here to be directed to our site area for corporates or reach-out through email to Josie at


  1. Yue, X. D. (2011). The Chinese ambivalence to humor: views from undergraduates in Hong Kong and China. Humor-International Journal of Humor Research24(4), 463-480.
  2. Nevo, O., Nevo, B., & Yin, J. L. S. (2001). Singaporean humor: A cross-cultural, cross-gender comparison. The Journal of General Psychology128(2), 143-156.
  3. Castell, P. J., & Goldstein, J. H. (1977). Social occasions for joking: a cross-cultural study. In It's a funny thing, humour: International conference on humour and laughter (pp. 193-197).
  4. Safdar, S. 2012, December 30. Everything you always wanted to know about culture. Retrieved from
  5. Radio Times Staff (2015, February 15). Mr Bean: 25 facts and figured for his 25th anniversary. Retrieved from
  6. Su, G., Q., (2015). Fire and Water: Mandarin Chinese Joke. Retrieved from