Sense of humour to sarcasm … to cynicism?


A sense of humour is very much part of the basic desirable traits in Anglo-Saxon cultures. The ability to laugh about situations, people – oneself and others – to make light of problems that would otherwise become hard to deal with is a very important part of character.

But types of sense of humour are the one thing that can be literally untranslatable in spirit, and even after years of living in a new country some people will never find themselves laughing as hard as the locals at their jokes (or even laughing at all) and would do best to shy away from telling their own, if they don’t want to risk being met with embarrassed silence or forced hahas.

I was made very much aware of this years ago at the cinema with an Aussie pal (Happy Birthday Chary!), watching a film where a scene showed a cat knocking a funerary urn off a fireplace mantel, which in the context of the film was uproariously funny and had us literally in tears, desperately trying to stop laughing minutes after the scene had moved on. While the all-Italian audience had sat through the whole sequence in horrified silence. To be fair, the ashes were of the “suocera”, the all-.powerful mother-in-law figure. In my training of adults, I’d already noticed Italians are immoderately afraid of death, so noir isn’t really on their menu. The best way to get a language class of adults to quiet down used to be to take out a couple of haunted-house stories. At present, some of the younger generation seems to be into Gothic, but for the thrills, not the laughs.

I remember another session of uncontrollable giggles watching a French film here and being the only one laughing at a light-slapstick situation developing. There was nothing excessive about it, just nicely funny. From what I see on TV, what really gets audiences going here are heavy slapstick, with swear words galore, and lines preferably shouted. This is also the home of the Commedia dell’Arte, where cuckoldry was seen as riotously funny, and Italians still seem to think so nowadays (unless they’re directly involved in real-life situations, in which murderous outcomes are not rare). In these cases, I’m the one who ends up with the lost look on my face – what’s so funny? Finally, understated play-on-words comedy does exist but seems to only amuse a smaller, more sophisticated segment.

Obviously a whole area of humour is hard to understand in any country, and that’s political jokes. In Italy, without an in-depth knowledge of local corruption and general political ineptness – it helps to also be familiar with past episodes and with the fine points of regional Mafia variations  – no way you can laugh along with everybody else.


Traditional British humour is tongue in cheek and not in-your-face enough to cross over to the Continent.  Not so more recent blue-collar trends which have their equivalents in most EU countries. However, an insufficient knowledge of cultural backgrounds is a major hurdle anyway.

Sarcasm is what happens invariably when you’ve dealt with problems with a sense of humour in the past, by laughing them off, and at a certain point, things haven’t improved and your patience has worn thin. That’s when you tip over into sarcasm. You’re still above the fray, but just barely.

The problem with sarcasm is that if it becomes your main avenue of expression in dealing with a particular issue, you end up falling into a rut, and finally blend in with the local Zeitgeist which is cynicism. Italians are cynics per eccellenza, after all it’s the homeland of Machiavelli. Cynicism is tiring. But it can be a struggle not to be dragged along with the current in the long term. Staying optimistic is sometimes tough when confronted by everyday dysfunction of basic services, incompetence and dishonesty, all of which are trumpeted with alarmist glee by local newspapers. Yet cynical is ugly, the opposite of believing in things possibly getting better, it’s a dead-end street. The very opposite of my family-inspired desirable character values. So it’s sometimes uphill to keep the faith …



Do you have any thoughts on country-specific sense of humour? on sarcasm or cynicism?

These (my) photos are not really relevant – idea borrowed from (hope you don’t mind Ellen, just this once ‘cause I’m in a tear).


This entry was posted in Blogging, Cultural, Humour, Italy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

39 Responses to Sense of humour to sarcasm … to cynicism?

  1. Really great post! I am not a fan of sarcasm or cynicism – it gets tiresome and the negative edge irritates me. My kind of humour is paraprosdokian 🙂 One great comedian in this style is a guy called Demetri Martin. I also love really absurd/surreal humour which I think often makes me just seem strange haha.

    Humour is such a huge part of person identity I think. I lived in France for a year with very poor french, and although I made a lot of friends, some of whom I am still in touch with 10 years on, my biggest struggle was not being able to express the full range of my personality – without a good grasp of the language, it is very hard to make a joke, and then of course there is the issue of cultural differences in humour that you’ve mentioned.

  2. Kally says:

    I felt Asian countries are pretty cynical when comes to life, maybe its because our parents and their parents often passed down advice such as we need to study hard when we are young in order not to be a beggar on the street. Wrong conception makes us growing up cynical about society and thought that we need to be rich and educated to find happiness in life.

    • Bea dM says:

      Thanks for this angle I hadn’t thought of. A money-based view of life is indeed cynical, but as far as I understand, Asian parents push to strive & study hard to get there. Southern Mediterranean parents also tend to stress the need for cunning, which is a step higher in cynicism.

  3. Galaxian says:

    Interesting. But are Italians really more afraid of death than anyone else is? Or are they afraid that death humor might offend the spirits of the hereafter in some way? There’s still a lot of Catholic influence operating in Italy, and a somewhat similar funerary attitude can be seen in Mexican communities in the USA.

    • Bea dM says:

      You could be partly right, the main typically Roman insult relates to one’s forbears. Overall I believe it’s the idea of hell out there, which Dante described it in detail! at least in Mexico they try to exorcise death with their Festival of the Dead!

  4. BunKaryudo says:

    Unfortunately, I don’t have any very good examples to hand, but I know from experience that sarcasm and irony can be particularly tricky forms of humor. One misstep and you can cause serious hurt without meaning to.

    • Bea dM says:

      You’re so right, people’s feelings are often sensitive in ways one hasn’t imagined. But these are also forms of expression/thinking that are harmful to the speaker in the long run

      • BunKaryudo says:

        I have to try to be particularly careful when blogging since my site is intended to be humorous. I really don’t want to offend anyone or inadvertently hurt their feelings. The fact that people comment from all over the world can complicate things a bit given that they come at comedy with such different cultural expectations.

        I do use some irony, in the sense of saying something that’s the opposite of what I actually mean, but it’s usually done fairly gently and not targeted at any individual except occasionally myself. I try to avoid sarcasm, though. It’s no great loss to me since I barely ever use it in my daily life in any case.

      • Bea dM says:

        very wise!

  5. Nirodaigh says:

    Just revisiting this piece, to share a bit more. Many years ago when I was hired as a temp for a Japanese firm, I discovered how different our senses of humour were. As I found the work incredibly boring, I made fun of everything around me, constantly. Pretending to refuse an assignment for a few seconds, to the shock of my polite, very serious colleagues. There was no match on any level and they (rightfully) tossed me out after two months. But I never forgot the fun I had, all the same. Or how strange they found my sense of ‘inner mirth’.

    • Bea dM says:

      I see exactly what you mean: it’s not just Japan. My first time in a corporate environment, I tended to react to the (to me) boredom of repetitive tasks by making lots of little jokes, but soon found it didn’t jell with the culture. As to the Japanese, did you ever find out what type of humour they enjoy?

      • Nirodaigh says:

        Well not specifically but I have had, in recent years, a lot of fun with Asian colleagues who were participating in a training programme I was managing/mediating (more serious, grown up me). I found them quite delightful really, polite, fond of good food and drink and hugely appreciative of our efforts. 🙂

      • Bea dM says:

        So nice to think of a polite sense of humour, considering the other types that abound 🙂

  6. lundygirl says:

    Hi Bea, even in my own country with people who have never lived anywhere else there is a huge variation in humour. Some people just don’t seem to have a sense of humour at all!
    I don’t really like sarcasm if it’s used to be unkind as it just reminds me of school teachers that wielded sarcasm as a weapon to try to keep discipline. Bad memories.

    • Bea dM says:

      Yes, all generalizations are just that – generalizations! I’ve found country culture has a large influence on the type of things that make people laugh, but personal character variations account for the rest. As you say, some people don’t have a sense of humour, and I wonder how they manage to get through the ups and downs of life all in one piece 🙂

  7. I lived in Birmingham, Alabama. The university there has a strong medical/science/health grounding. A lot of ESL students were earning degrees/doing research (postdoc/PhD/MD folks). Great people.

  8. When I taught ESL (survival conversation in the US Deep South), “I Love Lucy” truly spoke universal language & laughs. I would show short clips–great way to learn verbs via physical comedy. My Chinese students had a marvelous sense of humor.

    • Bea dM says:

      Ha! I hadn’t thought of Chinese students as having a great sense of humour: they’re extremely nice but often hard to read… possibly precisely because of language hurdles. Comedy clips such a good idea 🙂 Btw, what were Chinese students doing in the Deep South?:

  9. Great post. I am enjoying this comment section thoroughly! Best, ch

  10. Nirodaigh says:

    Thanks a lot, I really appreciate that. 🙂 So far so good, and still having fun with it, which was the main objective so… but I’m surprised by how pleasant the whole ‘blogger contact’ is also. Just like this! Wishing you some good laughs, seek it out, we all need it. Or come aboard with me, I’ll do my best to put a smile on your face every so often.

  11. Nirodaigh says:

    Nice post. I have lived many years in NL, and have liberally sprinkled everyone I worked with or just gotten to know, in that time, with my own dose of Irish humour. Generally goes down fine, although sometimes there is surprise. In fact it is what prompted me to start blogging this summer, and so far so good… I am a firm believer in the power of humour, so yay. Laugh on my friends.

    • Bea dM says:

      Thanks for dropping in and commenting. Irish humour is meant to be pretty special – from a quick scan through your blog (fun!), I think I might understand it better than what I’m surrounded with at this stage of my life 🙂

  12. Ellen Hawley says:

    A hundred years ago, when the movie “The Russians Are Coming” came out, I read that both Russians and Americans found it funny, but they laughed in different places.

  13. The start of your post reminded me of one of my best London friends, who buried the remains of her incinerated mother in her back garden under the magnolia tree. In the process, her cat Lola, curious as ever, approached, and duly fell into the hole, emerging all covered in white ash… it was hilarious, according to my friend 😉

    • Bea dM says:

      how very funny! though as I wrote, some people would be horrified and might not understand that it has nothing to do with disrespect for the deceased, nor lack of emotions. Just a different view of life and death….and of what’s funny and what’s not…

      • …and when her son (7 yrs old at the time) was playing footie in the garden that following summer, and his ball got stuck in the magnolia tree, he yelled “Well caught grandma!”.

      • Bea dM says:

        There you go: British sense of humour goes with the DNA 🙂

  14. kevinbcohen says:

    I can recommend a screamingly funny French guy–go to YouTube and look for [Norman avoir un chat], and you’ll find a bunch of his videos. Seems pretty universal.

    • Bea dM says:

      Thanks for always being so prompt in reading and commenting! I’m only replying now because I wanted to first watch a video. Yes funny, and even if one’s French isn’t tops, it’s possible to follow the gist of what’s going on

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