Communication Problems with People with No or a Totally Different Sense of Humor

Since I am going to give a talk on Jewish humor during my next visit to Japan next February, I have recently given much thought to Jewish humor, which is Ashkenazic humor to all intents and purposes, and to sense of humor in general and its cultural and individual differences. Many factors can constitute communication problems not only between people from different cultures but even between those from the same culture. As far as I am concerned, the fact that my interlocutor(s) have no or a totally different sense of humor is factor No. 1 for communication problems. Of course, I am claiming neither that having no sense of humor is a shortcoming in absolute terms nor that my sense of humor is better than some other sense of humor. But the fact remains that I always find it not only boring and frustrating but even scary to speak with (or to) such people.

I am not sure whether sense of humor is innate or acquired or even both. But I remember that when I first heard or read Ashkenazic jokes, I felt at home, as I am cynical and sarcastic by nature. Since then I have been heavily influenced by Ashkenazic humor through massive and constant exposure to it. For someone like me with a cynical and sarcastic sense of humor, life was not so easy in Japan, where many people are too serious and have no sense of humor. So when I was about to leave Japan for Israel, I thought that I would have something to expect for in this respect. It is true that I really enjoy shmoozing with many people, especially in their fifties or older, who have Yiddish background because of their sense of humor, but on the other hand, I have also found that even in Israel there are enough people who have no or a totally different sense of humor. Lack of sense of humor manifests itself, among others, in that they not only do not smile but also have no facial expression whatsoever. Their faces remain stern as if smiling even a little were a grave sin.

Differences, whether cultural or individual, in the sense of humor as a possible factor for communication problems are more subtle than total lack of sense of humor. Furthermore, individual differences are far more problematic than cultural differences, especially because many of us are liable to see others stereotypically. For example, not every native speaker of Yiddish has the same sense of humor, nor is he or she a born comedian, though many are. ;-)

If I had a choice, I would stay away from people with no or a totally different sense of humor. But for a number of social roles I am supposed to assume this is not always possible. I have given up any hope of pleasing them and making them smile and have reconciled with the fact I have communication problems with them.


Cultural Differences in the Sense of Order

Having been born from and raised by highly ordered parents, I used to consider myself as a highly ordered person. The fact that even in Japan, which is famous for its order, I was considered too ordered intensified this self-conceit. So it came as a great surprise to find for the first time here in Israel that I was "accused" of lack of order in the evaluation of my teaching by my students, and this repeats itself every year.

This has lead me to think, again for the first time in my life, that there must be cultural differences in the sense of order. This may not be decent, but I have to say that I have never met anyone in Israel who shares the same sense of order as mine. Order can be not only purely physical but also logical. I cannot help noticing lack of order, both physical and conceptual, among so many people here in Israel, and I have been suffering from this lack of order here.

But what seems to me as lack of order is presumably the default state of order in Israel, so my sense of order must be interpreted as lack of order. Franly speaking, I am totally at a loss in this respect. On the one hand, I do not understand the Israeli sense of order, but on the other hand, I cannot allow myself to degenerate to the level of what I consider lack of order.


Main Principles of Teaching

The new academic year started this week after the four-month summer vacation. Partly because I participate in some courses by other teachers this year, I have realized that the way I teach is very different from the way they and probably many other teachers in Israel teach. I am still in search of the best teaching method. But the following is the list of the three main principles of teaching I have established for myself after years of trial and error.

  1. Know who and what your students are and interact with them. The very first thing I do in the first lesson of any course is to ask all the students to introduce themselves briefly, and when they do, I also ask them spontaneously about things that seem relevant to the topics of the course in question, such as their knowledge of foreign languages. I also try very hard to memorize the names of all the students as soon as possible. And I interact with them all the time, asking them questions, both literally and rhetorically.
  2. Prepare a handout of each lesson in advance. I always prepare a handout of each lesson and email it to all the students in advance. The main reason for doing this is to enable them to concentrate on the content and have more time to think critically about it without spending too much time just writing down what I say only orally. I also try to make a handout in such a way that will enable them to reconstruct each lesson later. But I have come to realize that with some students I do not share the same sense of order. Even in Japan, which is famous for its order, I was always considered very (or too) ordered, but here in Israel, some students write in their evaluation of my teaching that I am not ordered. So there must be a fundamental cultural (and/or individual) difference between my and their sense of order.
  3. Use humor. I tell my students jokes constantly in class. They can be either spontaneous or ready-made ones, but they are related to the content of what is being studied. My sense of humor is heavily influenced by Yiddish humor, which is characterized, among others, by cynicism and sarcasm. Unfortunately, however, Yiddish humor does not seem to be shared or cherished by everyone in Israel, including some of my students. I may be wrong, but some may even think that teachers should be serious all the time. But as far as I am concerned, I find it very difficult to interact with people with no sense of humor, especially if they are my teachers. Actually, some of my best teachers had a very sophisticated sense of humor. I also believe that the use of humor in class has a pedagogic benefit.

Unfortunately, some of my students seem to be perplexed, for better or for worse, by the way I teach, and in extreme cases seem to dislike it as there do not seem to be many teachers in Israel who follow all these principles.