A Good Laugh: Cultural Differences

There are obvious, clearly visible ways in which cultures differ from one another. They have different language, architecture, food, customs and behaviours. At this level, cultural differences are easy to recognise and relatively easy to negotiate and assimilate. But there are deeper levels in which cultures are different – different values and morality, and different assumptions about key areas of human activity such as orientations to time and society.

These deeper differences are harder to get hold of. We tend to interpret other cultures within the framework of our own culture, and may not even recognise or understand the depth of the differences. Perhaps the best way to approach these differences is through stories, as theorising about them does not often do them justice.

Recently, I have been pondering two incidents which illustrate to me in a significant way the ways in which Mexican culture is different from my own English culture. Both stories have to do with humour.

The first story is connected to my work as University Professor in a class of undergraduates studying ‘Socially Responsible Business’. I had asked each person to write a short essay about why they thought more was not being done to deal with climate change in the face of increasing evidence that it is having an increasing impact. I decided to have a number of these essays read anonymously in the class to show the range of responses to the essay topic, and ask my students to assess the quality of the different essays. When I had been marking the essays, I noticed that two were almost identical.

So, to make a point, I got two people to stand in front of the class and begin to alternately read sections from each of these essays. As it became obvious that the two essays were more or less identical, people started to laugh, and the hilarity grew in proportion with the increasing recognition of the similarity of the two essays. When I showed the class that the two essays, as well as having an almost identical content, were formatted in an identical way, most of the students fell about laughing.

When I thought about this afterwards, I wondered how English students would have reacted. I don’t think they would have found the situation funny, at least not as funny as the Mexican students clearly did. I think they would have been shocked, possibly, even outraged. The only trace of outrage appeared when I asked the students what mark they thought these essays should receive out of 10. One of the more able students made the sign 10 with her fingers. When I looked surprised, she explained that one should get 1 point and the other 0 points.

The other story goes back a number of years. I used to go cycling with a Mexican friend. One day he suggested to me that we take his sister’s dog with us, a young, black, over-weight labrador, as he thought it was not getting enough exercise. So we put the dog and our two bikes in his van and drove to the place outside the city to start the bike ride.

The first part of the ride was all downhill. The dog ran happily alongside us at first, but as time went on the dog clearly started to have problems, was sweating profusely and breathing heavily. I started to get worried about the dog, thinking it might have a heart attack. My friend’s reaction was hilarity to the dog’s predicament. Finally, when it was clear the dog could not continue, we stopped and my friend tied the dog to  a tree, whilst we continued on our ride and picked up the dog on the way back.

In these two stories, humour is expressed in a context in which I think typically people from an English  – or possibly any western cultural  – background would not have found funny. They both remind me of an incident recounted in a wonderful travel book about Mexico.

The book is called “A Visit to Don Octavio”. It is by Sybille Bedford and was written in 1953. As Bruce Chatwin says of the book:

“A work that evokes Mexico, that disturbing and paradoxical country, as vividly as anything by D.H. Lawrence and, to my mind, more vividly than Malcolm Lowry’s ‘Under the Volcano’….. A wonderful book”

It is indeed a wonderfully written, acutely observed, and very witty book. In one part, the author and her companion are travelling across Mexico on a bus. One of the passengers, a little old man, is drunk, and, as a result, becomes increasingly talkative and boisterous. In the words of Sybille Bedford:

“He was making rather a nuisance of himself. Nobody paid him the slightest attention. Then two men got up, seized him, opened the door of the moving bus and with the driver stepping on the gas hurled the old man out into the road. ………everybody craned to get a receding glimpse of a man lying bent double in a pool of blood. Then the whole bus burst into laughter.”

Perhaps what a culture laughs at tells us a great deal about the culture. Mexican culture is well-known for laughing at everything including death.

Do you have a favourite story about laughter in Mexico?

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