Interview with Dorota Brzozowska — linguist, professor at the Faculty of Philology at Opol University, member of the International Association of Humour Researchers, author of works on the role of humour in international communication and related cultural stereotypes.
— Where does a sense of humour come from?
Dorota Brzozowska: Jean-Paul Sartre said that it is not a gift of spirit, but of heart. However, neuropsychologists who study the physiology of humour place it in the head. They say that the left hemisphere is responsible for it, and how quickly we react to jokes depends on the connections between hemispheres. Breakdowns in the left hemisphere lead to the fact that a person is constantly in a bad mood, and in the right hemisphere leads to excessive optimism. So the stimulation of certain brain centers leads to a person in a good mood. The same does laughter in pleasant company: it massages the diaphragm, regulates the pressure, makes the hormones of happiness secreted. When we feel good, other people feel more comfortable communicating with us. Laughter is a mutual relationship.
— However, we have fun in many ways: some people die laughing while watching two men throw cakes at each other, while others prefer Monty Python. Where do these differences come from?
— It’s largely a question of taste, but the sense of humour is made up of a huge number of elements. For example, language competences are important. A person who uses so-called developed language code has, according to the theory of British sociologist Basil Bernstein, a tool for playing with words. Although the specificity of some languages plays a role here, for example, English, where there are no cases, but there are many multi-digit expressions, perfectly suited to create puns. Also important is the amount of knowledge about the world, reading. Humor is often related to a literary context, so if that context is unknown to us, it is difficult to notice a joke that relies on funny allusions or intertextual games. But behind these skills is also our personality.
— So we can’t say that some people are already born with a sense of humor…
— People will surely inherit a sense of humor to some extent, but it is very important in what environment a person grows up, how much jokes in his family. If so, he’ll have a sharp sniff for jokes. You should only answer yourself the question: what is humour? According to the most popular theory, it is the ability to notice inconsistencies in the surrounding life and find other solutions for them. Some people have it, others do not. In psychology, there are at least four types of humor, which can be found separately or simultaneously.
Affiliate humor helps to defuse tension in a group: it is a paraphrase of funny stories and jokes, foolishness aimed at amusing others. Self-supporting humor is important for our own wellbeing, which helps to cope with stressful situations, uplifting the mood. It finds expression in the tendency to notice funny things around us. There is also aggressive humor that destroys relationships and serves to criticize other people. It is mockery and even manipulation of others through the hidden threat of ridicule. If a person is prone to excessive ridicule of himself, there is talk of self-abuse humor or even suicide humor.
— Does a funny clown have a sad side to his face? Like Robin Williams, who committed suicide?
— The ability to laugh is a positive trait, but if a person constantly portrays himself as a clown, it may mean that he has a broken self-esteem, he considers himself a loser and a victim of fate, which everyone else can only laugh at. Also, people with a sense of humor may just suffer from depression. Research, however, makes it clear that while affiliated humor is associated with openness, high self-esteem, and satisfaction with connections, aggressive humor is associated with hostility and neuroticism.
— Psychologists emphasize that humor plays an important role in communicating and forming connections. Laughter, like crying, is said to promote group cohesion. Is that why so many people love Polish comedies and humour shows?
— They say that sadness shared with another person is half of sadness, and shared joy is a double joy. Understanding that someone thinks or feels like us is important for a sense of unity and psychological comfort.
About a Russian, a German and a Polish
— It is especially difficult to achieve this feeling in contacts with foreigners, who often do not get mixed up in our jokes and vice versa.
— Different cultures differ from each other by temperament, emotionality. More emotional people like physical and situational jokes; people who accept restraint in interhuman contacts prefer abstract or linguistic jokes. Added to this is the tendency to avoid incomprehensible situations: some people show more restraint, others less restraint. That is, if something strange, unknown, happens, some people will be delighted and others will consider it a danger. Some cultures are simply more open than others. And these traits are overlaid with individual features.
— Traditionally, the most brilliant is English humor, German we underestimate, and we do not know about Asian.
— Stereotypical ideas that Germans, unlike the English, have no sense of humor are far from reality. But of course, in addition to openness, the desire to avoid obscure situations, there are such factors as the attitude to power, individualism and language itself: it also affects how freely we joke. As for Asian humour, we really don’t know much about it, although Asian languages have borrowed the word «humour» from European. The specifics of Asian humour have always been very different from ours, so it’s very difficult for us to decipher funny scenes in Asian theatre performances or literature. By the way: to understand jokes in a foreign language is the top achievement in its study.
— When researchers of humor from all over the world meet at conferences, do they laugh at the same jokes?
— Meeting scientists, of course, is not about telling jokes to a friend. But we have a very interdisciplinary environment in which the humanities, social and natural sciences meet. When a couple of years ago we gathered at an international conference in Krakow, we prepared a book for foreign scientists on Polish humour, because most of the guests associated it only with jokes about Poles. Everyone has stereotypes.
— What does Polish humour look like?
— It’s quite good, we have a developed sense of humor. This is due to the fact that before World War II Poland was a multinational country, we have a tradition of absorbing different elements of languages and cultures, for example, Jewish «schmonces». Thanks to our openness we now draw inspiration from the English language, but I am not afraid of its dominance in Polish, because we always creatively adapt foreign language expressions, jokes, humorous genres.
— But we don’t really like to be the object of jokes ourselves.
— It’s one thing when we laugh at ourselves, and it’s another when someone else does. Take, for example, Jewish humor, which is to make fun of Jews. If a Jew does it, his behaviour will be called impolite and even anti-Semitic. We know that the Germans tell jokes about Polish thieves, and Americans make us look like slobs and fools. When we hear it from their lips, we are outraged, but when we talk about it ourselves, we laugh. Every culture has its own taboos, and humor can overcome them, only it has to be done in a way that does not offend other people and their feelings.
— A lot depends on the context of the joke. After all, some aim to insult or humiliate, and this may contribute to the development of complexes or even cause a phenomenon called helophobia.
— Yes, a person suffering from this phobia who sees a group of laughing people think they are laughing at him. This phobia may be related to childhood traumas or subjective memories of them, but the fear of being laughed at is so strong that it prevents them from speaking out in public in adulthood, for example. At the opposite pole is helophilia: one likes to be laughed at. There are people who enjoy being ridiculed by others. Some people do it kindly to show their affection, then interpersonal connections are formed. In addition, when you are the object of a joke, you can look at yourself and the world from a distance. Others are ironic, using sarcasm and taunting, and this can cause a deep wound. There is a very catchy proverb: «With a joke, as with salt, you overdo it, it will hurt».
— How do you protect yourself from that?
— The only method against aggressive humor, and we are talking about it, is to respond with humor.
— It still has to be able to do.
— Optimistic American psychologists believe that a sense of humor can be developed. Paul McGhee has released exercise books with unfinished jokes to be written. Besides he advises to adjust to positive impulses, to watch comedies and to see bright sides in life. If one partner has a more developed sense of humor, he should help the second one, who is less able to cope with stress, it can have a beneficial effect on the development of their relationship.
— Laughter helps to survive difficult moments, so there was yoga laughter, visits of clowns to sick children in hospices or black humor, which flourished in occupied Poland even in the ghetto.
— Humour acts therapeutically. It is perfectly visible during all kinds of traumatic events. During the Second World War, black humour was a kind of protection of people from a gloomy life in constant danger. In the era of the Polish People’s Republic, Poles tried to defuse stressful situations with jokes, so we were nicknamed «the funniest barracks in the socialist camp». The therapeutic effect of humour is evidenced by jokes that appeared on the Internet after the attack on the World Trade Centre. People have noticed that the media, telling about the tragic events, do not stop showing ads. The memes that depict burning skyscrapers next to an advertisement for toothpaste or a hamburger are a comparison of tragedy with banality, it helps to come to terms with the trauma. A few years ago, these jokes weren’t popular, and now they’ve become. The sense of humor is changing, and the taboo zone is narrowing.
— So man has always made jokes, but humor evolves?
— He has his own dynamics, let’s say, but there are several timeless themes: jokes on sexual, ethnic, political themes and jokes about stupidity. Foolishness is universal, only the «victims» to whom this quality is attributed change: policemen, blondes or Poles in the USA. We have always laughed at our neighbours: from here our jokes are about a Pole, a Russian and a German, or British jokes about an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scottish. Thanks to the development of writing and access to communication facilities, it is now, of course, easier than ever to joke and pass on jokes.
— But hasn’t the level of humour dropped, hasn’t it pushed elegant jokes in the style of «Cabaret of the Elderly Lords» (the programme of the Polish television, which was published in 1958-1966) beyond the main stream?
— Flat jokes were always, but really, when there was a stricter division into literary and spoken language, they were not so noticeable. Now the boundaries have erased, but that does not mean that subtle humor and subtle abstractions have disappeared. Jokes, memes, demotivators, ironic over reality, are often very inventive, allow a better sense of what is happening. Some people form their idea of Poland and the world not by the programs «News» and «Facts», but by them.
— Excessive mockery can be dangerous, yet women believe that a partner should have a sense of humor. And men give much less importance to women’s wit. Why is that?
— Perhaps because if you look at it from a cultural-historical point of view, rather, men entertained the audience, and the role of women was to respond to jokes. In many cultures, when a person is called witty, he or she is supposed to be smart, although situational humour like throwing cakes requires more physical strength than intellectual skill. If we consider which men women choose, it is perhaps mainly because a sense of humor is linked to openness, the ability to make contacts and look at themselves from the outside. It is simply easier to live with a person who has a sense of humor. Julius Caesar also warned that people who do not laugh are dangerous.
— So women are more dangerous. A small number of humorists and feuilletonists hints that women have less developed comic talent than men, in addition, even if there is some witty woman, it is immediately called «ulcer».
— The sense of humor in the different sexes studied Anna Radomska, who stated that men more often prefer sexual topics, and women — soft and neutral jokes. However, which type of humour a person prefers depends on different factors, for example, whether he is an idealist or a realist, introvert or extravert, so that individual features are more important than gender. We see so few women humorists as authors and performers of funny texts, because women have traditionally been less present on the public stage at all, but the situation is changing before our eyes, including in the humorous sphere. If you look at the stand, for example, the form that came to us from English-speaking countries, you can see that in the West it is engaged in many women who are also increasingly becoming authors of comedy scripts, comic books, comic books. I think the appearance of women in the sphere of humor (including in Poland) is a matter of time. There are no cultural and ethical barriers, and there are still stereotypes to overcome. Differences in the sense of humor will not be an obstacle, because they are both men and women, and the fact that it is different for all of us — the funnier and more interesting.
— So, the next time I quarrel with my husband, I should watch a comedy with him as a sign of reconciliation?
— And if it doesn’t work out, at least go to the movies for a comedy film to get back in a good mood. Then you’ll stop sulking and look at the conflict from an ironic distance.