When I was an undergrad at Caltech, I worked on campus at the Red Door Café. It was a popular hangout for grad students, post-docs, and faculty. Those strata are highly international at Caltech; I informally counted about 50% non-native-English speakers. It was an interesting chance to witness diversity and to observe cultural differences. After working there for several months, I noticed a very striking pattern. I discovered the “International Sense-of-Humor Line,” dividing a jocular western world from a stern east. People from west of the line were much more carefree and lighthearted. Westerners would stop to chit-chat or joke about how many calories were in our desserts. I could give them a hard time about how predictable their orders were. Those from the other side of the Humor Line were not into small talk. They were there to study or do their job. Jokes would bounce right off of them without eliciting a smile. I also noticed that the International Sense-of-Humor Line was strongly coincident with the erstwhile Iron Curtain, right down the middle of Europe.
Yes, I know, this is a generalization. I don’t have any quantitative data to back up my characterization, and of course there are exceptions. But to me in that particular environment, the overall pattern stood out pretty prominently. I realized that maybe the dimension of humor / humorlessness can be measured as a personal or cultural value. I had grown up in a very fun-loving environment. I wondered why some persons — or peoples, even — would prefer to be stiff. This little pseudo-study has made me mindful of humorlessness ever since.
In my culture, I have come to feel that a good sense of humor is a sign of mental health and social grace. I’m not talking about comic brilliance. A sense of humor is a social interest in joking around, making light of life’s imperfections, talking about trivialities, imagining and pretending, poking fun at ourselves and others. It indicates an elasticity of spirit. It puts others at ease. Humorlessness is just the opposite — rigidity, a focus on serious topics, nervousness around others, lack of charisma. When someone is humorless, it indicates that he isn’t particularly interested in me. Then I don’t feel like talking to him for very long either.
Humorlessness is often a byproduct of emotional damage. When a person suffers enough adversity or trauma, it seems that his emotional response ossifies and becomes part of his psyche. The person becomes coldly serious. Hot emotions often lie just below the surface and can come out in flashes. The hot emotions tend toward fear in conservatives (think of apocalyptic survivalists or right-wing alarmists) and anger in liberals (think of protest marches, union strikes, and revolutionaries). Wounded emotions become inflexible, and the person is unable to come back to moderation and take matters lightly anymore.
An overly serious mindset can also be a product of family values, education, peer pressure, or propaganda. College activists are always upset about something involving race, gender, or socioeconomic status. In their campus culture, you’re just supposed to be angry about the system. Meanwhile, I joke that the notoriously right-wing FOX News stands for …
When I do my own research, I immediately discard sources written with a tone of anger or fear. Emotions make lousy filters for truth. I want to learn for the pleasure of it. Even challenges can be inspiring. I don’t need to hear someone’s top ten reasons that the world is about to end.
I keep negative nellies and party poopers out of my life. I’m just better off without them. Sometimes I’ve taken on a client who gave me that first impression: “Wow, this person is stiff! But I need her business.” Almost invariably, it leads to a personality clash down the line. As a small businessman, reputation is everything. It can hurt my business to upset a client, and if a client is easily upset, I have to walk on eggshells. It distracts me from the more patient and respectful clients. I have a strict policy now: I don’t need emotionally demanding clients!
What’s downright remarkable is that over-seriousness can become a widespread cultural value. I have a friend from Iran. One December day, we were walking around a mall with a Santa’s Village, Christmas music and lights. “I guess you didn’t grow up with this stuff,” I realized aloud. “No way,” he said. “We were never allowed to have any fun!” He was half-joking.
I believe that Eastern cultures must have a different attitude about levity. It’s hard to imagine an entire nation where everyone is glum due to emotional baggage. Besides, the vibe East of the International Sense-of-Humor Line is different from the grumps of the West. Easterners are not on the edge of anger or fear. They’re just so darn serious all the time! I’m sure you know the type – the Russian woman who talks like a drill sergeant, the Indian guy who’s never smiled. I suppose that in these cultures, seriousness is seen as a sign of mutual respect, whereas in the West we prefer to be easy-going and joke around with each other. We must also acknowledge, of course, that some of the Eastern countries have had a very bleak history over the last century or more.
Many Eastern cultures are more bureaucratic than Western republics. Here in the US, the highest value is the right to do your own thing. I’m no expert on nations like China, Saudi Arabia, or Ukraine, but I envision them as crowded countries with little personal space. I imagine orders coming from on high, with many government or religious officials telling people what to do. I imagine social disobedience being a big deal. If you don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, maybe you must guard your privacy more seriously.
I think that dictators are one of the world’s worst problems, and I feel that one of their greatest evils is imposing their humorlessness on their countrymen, from the top down. Most dictators strike me as being humorless in the Mafioso, psychopathic sense of the word. Easy-going, lovable guys don’t usually claw their way to the top of a power vacuum … I’m just saying. And the weight of the bully at the top presses down on his whole national system. It’s hard to imagine anyone cutting loose in Nazi Germany or ISIS. I have recently seen videos of Putin at speeches and ceremonies, where he was so puffy-chested as to be almost Mussolinian. That glimpse of his pompousness, just as much as his policies, really jarred me. Yikes, I don’t trust a person who takes himself that seriously to be running a country.
The clip below is a pretty damn interesting case study on these effects. When Gorbachev allowed greater free speech, his people found courage to joke about the government — though this is not exactly Comedy Club material here. Say what you will about Reagan (and I know that Democrats have many choice words), but he collected these jokes to monitor the Soviet condition. He also used them to reach out to the citizenry of the USSR, even as he was working to unravel their corrupt and heavy-handed government. That took some sense of humor.
If you are the owner of any images or videos in this blog and would like me to remove them, just ask. I make no money from this blog. And if you don’t have a sense of humor, I apologize for this terribly offensive blog post. Please don’t bother leaving comments tinged with anger and fear. Oh, the irony. >P