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.