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Pepperdine | Caruso School of Law

Communication Humor

I began researching cross-cultural communication during my Straus Dispute Resolution Classes in the spring of 2007. A National Geographic study, about the human genome project, found that all humans are most likely decedents of one or two people from Africa. I started to work off of the idea that all humans are genetically the same. I asked that if there is trouble communicating with different cultures, then how could we communicate on the basic human level? I started to research humor, and more specifically laughter. We have all heard about the movie, and true story, about Patch Adams. The idea being that laughter is healing, calming, and relaxing to people. Studies have shown that laughter has been developed with our own evolution. As people began to spread out and meet other cultures around them laughter developed as a way to calm one another and alleviate any initial tension. Many of us know this through that painful awkward laughter that bursts out of us in new or different situations. Our bodies will actually react with awkward laughter, often subconsciously, in an attempt to alleviate the stress of the situation.

We went to Kampala Comedy Night at the National Theatre this past Thursday. I had wanted to go since I was curious about the type of humor that is in this area. Most of the skits that were performed were in Luganda, so that made it a little difficult to understand. Luckily, I had Justice Kiryabwire sitting behind us. He patiently, between his own laughter, translated some of the jokes for us. The stand up that was in English related to taxes, government, and political figures. This is common for what would occur in the US.  However, the skits took on a different tone. They dealt with polio vaccines, HIV, bribing of police officers and rape. I think one would be hard pressed to find that in the US rape is considered to be funny. Ill admit that the point that they were getting at, one may smile, but in the US we take something like rape very seriously. Coming to Africa I arrived with an open mind. I wasn't offended at the jokes, just saddened.

I wonder if making jokes out of serious issues is what takes the tension out of the issue. In my previous work experience I have noticed that in stressful situations people will make a joke, even if inappropriate, in order to allow them to work further on the project. In hospitals doctors often have very dark humor about death or disease. I am curious if it is this humor that allows us to go on and move forward in times that are difficult. If doctors were unable to find humor in their situation, then I doubt they would be able to continue their line of work.

Earlier in the week I attended a mediation. The Plaintiff was a Ugandan who lived in Sweden, and worked in Norway. While the Defendant was a Danish company that worked in Uganda. The experience couldn't have been more international if you tried. The mediator at the mediation used humor in a very different way than I would have expected. I realized that in order to use humor in cross-cultural settings you must have an understanding of the culture. If I had been running the mediation I would have used a very different touch on the jokes that I made, and it is likely that they would not have been successful. When I write the perfect Ugandan/US cross-cultural joke, I will let you know.

Marie Dominguez-Gasson