Vorsprung Durch Slapstick: A Multilingual Sense of Humor?

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Multilingual Humor: Vorsprung Durch Slapstick

By Suze Nowak
Photo credit: Marc Kjerland

“How do you make a duck sing soul?
Put it in the microwave until its Bill Withers.”

Mwahhahahah…snort…grunt. As I broke a rib over one of my all time favourites, I shot a glance over at its German recipient.

Silence and a serious frown of confusion.

And there you have it.

For me, this is the single, greatest disadvantage to living in a foreign country: Humour asymmetry. A disparity of wit, if you like.

Around twenty seconds into an explanation and my Teutonic friend already had the glassy eyed look I myself sport when attempting to get a grip of quantum mechanics. I don’t know why I’d even bothered. After almost a decade of living in a country where The Wizard of Oz is not a Christmastime staple and nobody has heard of The Clangers, I should have known better.

You see, this is not just any foreign country, this is Germany and it makes a difference when it comes to culture, despite the geographical proximity to the UK. I have trained my long suffering German husband to some extent. He is now a fully fledged Faulty Towers aficionado and laughs like a drain at Black Adder. “Allo Allo”  and “Dad’s Army” are still a bit beyond him though!

There is an interminable theory that Germans, specifically, have no sense of humour. The customary but nonetheless onerous response being that they do have humour – they just take it very seriously. It is commonly believed that Germans actually laugh three times at a joke: Once when you tell it, once when you explain it and once when he gets it!

The truth is, German jokes just don’t translate very well. But in many ways it’s not so different from the English causticity, sarcasm and cynicism. They do love a bit of slapstick too, which, if I’m not mistaken fizzled out with Benny Hill in the UK.

Lost in translation was never a more accurate explanation for misunderstandings than when it comes to jokes. If you don’t believe me, take a look at this:

When I showed this to my German friend, she said it was “even funnier” in English! Even funnier?

But there is a serious point here. As an expat living in Germany, one issue which which is of constant frustration to me revolves around this very subject. Regardless of how proficient you are at a language, getting humour and personality across is challenging at best, depressing at worst.

My humour, like it or not, is a huge part of my identity. If you don’t understand the banter, you don’t understand me as a person and that can be tough when you are attempting to integrate and ingratiate yourself into a new culture.

As I keep plodding on, fending off baffled looks as I hopelessly translate English jokes into German, I take some consolation from the fact that my daughter won’t suffer from the same problem. Almost six, she still mixes her languages – though I am assured that this will cease in the coming years. I can only hope that, as an adult, she will have the advantage of “getting” both German and English humour and be able to integrate herself into both cultures seamlessly because of that.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to confuse the Germans with my jokes, gleaning at least some entertainment from watching them laugh politely when they clearly have no idea what they are laughing at. No doubt, in a frighteningly short time, my daughter will be translating them for me and helping me save face.

Suze Nowak decided to quit her job in UK ten years ago and with a “now or never” motto, determined to realise her life long dream to learn another language, she upped sticks and moved to Germany. After teaching English for five years at Berlitz Language School, she resolved to concentrate on her dream career as a freelance writer and had great success with her award winning column for www.parentdish.co.uk, “Achtung Baby”. The column followed the trials and tribulations of bringing up a bilingual child and being a foreigner in the country she chose to live in and has grown to love. Ten years down the line Suze has gained a certain proficiency in her second language, has married a German man and has a six year-old daughter who switches nationality on a daily, nay hourly, basis.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jimmy Keegan March 21, 2012 at 12:27 am

Hit the nail on the head there Suze, I’ve read books that were shorter than that German joke, and been in fights that were funnier! Great to see you’re writing again, knew it wouldn’t be long.




2 Gail hunter March 21, 2012 at 12:52 am

How very true. Working with a German team can be challenging sometimes, especially in terms of a team spirit because, like you, humour is a big part of my make up and itsp very often gets lost. Great article Suze.


3 notafish March 21, 2012 at 1:08 am

The other difficult thing about humour is puns. No matter how well you master a language, as soon as you try a pun in a language that is not your first language, the recipient will always pause to consider whether you didn’t just make a “language” mistake, rather than a pun. Pain.


4 Karen Clarke March 21, 2012 at 3:22 am

A great article Suze. I only have experience of the French Swiss and mmmm not sure they have a sense of humour. The only exception are the Swiss who were educated in the UK. One Aussie friend in Switzerland once said to me, they are very nice but they just don’t get our sarcastic humour. How true!


5 Rochelle Pitkaniemi March 21, 2012 at 5:02 am

this reminds me of the time I watched the lost German episode of Monty Python with my host sister and she didn’t laugh once! She finally said, “Sorry, I just don’t get British humor. It’s not funny.” I astounded. We even watched an English episode since she speaks English. Nope, not funny. Bizarre.


6 karen southgate March 21, 2012 at 5:12 am

Fantastic article!!!!! Good to see your work. x


7 Cathy March 21, 2012 at 5:30 am

Fabulous! Great read… and I loved the Loriot clip. (No idea whether it’s funnier in English or German though)


8 Christel Broady March 21, 2012 at 5:45 am

Uh, this gave me a good laugh! Oh, did I mention I am German? On one of trips to Germany I made sure to attend a show at the Loriot Theater in Munich. I can recite many of the pieces from memory…


9 Kate March 21, 2012 at 1:40 pm

So true! I’ve often heard when you can understand the humor, you’ve mastered the language. But maybe the cultural differences are just too great? Have you ever tried to watch an episode of Seinfeld in Germany (where they dub into German)? I don’t know why they bother! My husband is Dutch but speaks perfect English – even he doesn’t get it. Then again, maybe English-speakers who are not American don’t think it’s funny either??
Thanks for capturing this dilemma so delightfully!


10 gabe March 21, 2012 at 4:53 pm

really enjoyed that – hope there’s more to come!!


11 Barbara March 21, 2012 at 8:35 pm

I definitely miss German Kabarett here in the US. Karneval is also a sense of humor that surprises many foreigners. I also can quote whole passages of Loriot, but so I can Monthy Python which are hugely popular in Germany. So it’s not that cross-country humor is a complete loss!


12 Becky Smith March 23, 2012 at 5:20 am

This difference in humor is one caveat I have living in Central Asian Russian culture–or just Central Asian culture. Jokes aren’t a centrality there like they are in America. Everyone seems so very serious!! In fact, the longer I lived there, the more serious and (impatient) I became, to match my peers. It’s been a relief, really, to live in America again and gain some of the lightness to my personality back again.


13 shahrooz aziminia March 23, 2012 at 4:22 pm

I love the way you chose to live your life! I also agree that getting humor across is the hardest in any multicultural mix! I feel too sarcastic, too serious etc. depending who I am interacting with. And I definitely don’t blend with the US humor after 13 years!


14 John chipsets March 27, 2012 at 10:25 pm

Fabulously written. Very intuitive, witty and clever.
I look forward to the next one.


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