Is there such a thing as a national sense of humour?

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A statue celebrating Monty Python’s sketch The Dead Parrot near London’s Tower Bridge ahead of a live show on the TV channel Gold.

Gary McKeown, Queen’s University Belfast

We’re all aware that there are stereotypes. The British are sharply sarcastic, the Americans are great at physical comedy, and the Japanese love puns. But is humour actually driven by culture to any meaningful extent? Couldn’t it be more universal – or depend largely on the individual? The Conversation

There are some good reasons to believe that there is such a thing as a national sense of humour. But let’s start with what we actually have in common, by looking at the kinds of humour that most easily transcend borders.

Certain kinds of humour are more commonly used in circumstances that are international and multicultural in nature – such as airports. When it comes to onoard entertainment, airlines, in particular, are fond of humour that transcends cultural and linguistic boundaries for obvious reasons. Slapstick humour and the bland but almost universally tolerable social transgressions and faux pas of Mr Bean permit a safe, gentle humour that we can all relate to. Also, the silent situational dilemmas of the Canadian Just for Laughs hidden camera reality television show has been a staple option for airlines for many years.

Just for laughs.

These have a broad reach and are probably unlikely to offend most people. Of course, an important component in their broad appeal is that they are not really based on language.

Language and culture

Most humour, and certainly humour that involves greater cognitive effort, is deeply embedded in language and culture. It relies on a shared language or set of culturally based constructs to function. Puns and idioms are obvious examples.

Indeed, most modern theories of humour suggest that some form of shared knowledge is one of the key foundations of humour – that is, after all, what a culture is.

Some research has demonstrated this. One study measured humour in Singaporean college students and compared it with that of North American and Israeli students. This was done using a questionnaire asking participants to describe jokes they found funny, among other things. The researchers found that the Americans were more likely to tell sex jokes than the Singaporeans. The Singaporean jokes, on the other hand, were slightly more often focused on violence. The researchers interpreted the lack of sex jokes among Singaporean students to be a reflection of a more conservative society. Aggressive jokes may be explained by a cultural emphasis on strength for survival.

International humour?
C.P.Storm/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Another study compared Japanese and Taiwanese students’ appreciation of English jokes. It found that the Taiwanese generally enjoyed jokes more than the Japanese and were also more eager to understand incomprehensible jokes. The authors argued that this could be down to a more hierarchical culture in Japan, leaving less room for humour.

Denigration and self-deprecation

There are many overarching themes that can be used to define a nation’s humour. A nation that laughs together is one that can show it has a strong allegiance between its citizens. Laughter is one of our main social signals and combined with humour it can emphasise social bonding – albeit sometimes at the cost of denigrating other groups. This can be seen across many countries. For example, the French tend to enjoy a joke about the Belgians while Swedes make fun of Norwegians. Indeed, most nations have a preferred country that serves as a traditional butt of their jokes.

Sexist and racist humour are also examples of this sort of denigration. The types of jokes used can vary across cultures, but the phenomenon itself can boost social bonding. Knowledge of acceptable social boundaries is therefore crucial and reinforces social cohesion. As denigration is usually not the principle aim of the interaction it shows why people often fail to realise that they are being offensive when they were “only joking”. However, as the world becomes more global and tolerant of difference, this type of humour is much less acceptable in cultures that welcome diversity.

Self-denigration or self-deprecation is also important – if it is relatively mild and remains within acceptable social norms. Benign violation theory argues that something that threatens social or cultural norms can also result in humour.

Importantly, what constitutes a benign level of harm is strongly culturally bound and differs from nation to nation, between social groups within nations and over the course of a nation’s history. What was once tolerable as national humour can now seem very unacceptable. For the British, it may be acceptable to make fun of Britons being overly polite, orderly or reluctant to talk to stangers. However, jokes about the nature of Britain’s colonial past would be much more contentious – they would probably violate social norms without being emotionally benign.

Another factor is our need to demonstrate that we understand the person we are joking with. My own ideas suggest we even have a desire to display skills of knowing what another person thinks – mind-reading in the scientific sense. For this, cultural alignment and an ability to display it are key elements in humour production and appreciation – it can make us joke differently with people from our own country than with people from other cultures.

‘Fork handles’.

For example, most people in the UK know that the popular phrase “don’t mention the war” refers to a Fawlty Towers sketch. Knowing that “fork handles” is funny also marks you as a UK citizen (see video above). Similarly, knowledge of “I Love Lucy” or quotes from Seinfeld create affiliation among many in the US, while reference to “Chavo del Ocho” or “Chapulín Colorado” do the same for Mexicans and most Latin Americans.

These shared cultural motifs – here drawn mostly from television – are one important aspect of a national sense of humour. They create a sense of belonging and camaraderie. They make us feel more confident about our humour and can be used to build further jokes on.

A broadly shared sense of humour is probably one of our best indicators for how assimilated we are as a nation. Indeed, a nation’s humour is more likely to show unity within a country than to display a nation as being different from other nations in any meaningful way.

Gary McKeown, Senior Lecturer of Psychology, Queen’s University Belfast

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Crimes of grammar and other writing misdemeanours


Roslyn Petelin, The University of Queensland

Writing an article like this is just asking for trouble. Already, I can hear one reader asking “Why do you need just?” Another suggesting that like should be replaced by such as. And yet another saying “fancy using a cliché like asking for trouble!”

Another will mutter: “Where’s your evidence?”

My evidence lies in the vehement protestations that I face when going through solutions to an editing test or grammar quiz with on-campus students in my writing courses at The University of Queensland, and no, that’s not deferential capitalisation. It is capital ‘T’.

Confirming evidence lies in the querulous discussion-board posts from dozens of students when they see the answers to quizzes on the English Grammar and Style massive open online course that I designed.

Katie Krueger/Flickr

Further evidence lies in the fervour with which people comment about articles such as the one that you are currently reading. For instance, a 2013 article 10 grammar rules you can forget: How to stop worrying and write proper by the style editor of The Guardian, David Marsh, prompted 956 comments. Marsh loves breaking “real” rules. The title of his recent book is For Who the Bell Tolls. I’d prefer properly to proper and whom to who, but not everybody else would.

Marsh’s 10 forgettable rules are ones that my favourite grammarian, Professor Geoffrey Pullum, co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls zombie rules: “though dead, they shamble mindlessly on”. A list of zombie rules invariably includes never beginning a sentence with “and”, “but”, or “because”, as well as the strictures that are a hangover from Latin: never split an infinitive and never end a sentence with a preposition. It (should it be they?) couldn’t be done in Latin, but it (they?) can be done in English. Just covering my bases here.

So, what’s my stance on adhering to Standard English? I’m certainly not a grammar Nazi, nor even a grammando, a portmanteau term that first appeared in The New York Times in 2012 that’s hardly any softer. Am I a vigilante, a pedant, a per(s)nickety person? Am I a snoot? Snoot is the acronym that the late David Foster Wallace and his mother — both English teachers — coined from Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance or, for those with neither German nor a cache of obsolete words in their vocabulary, Syntax Nudniks of Our Time.

David Foster Wallace
yoosi barzilai Flickr

Foster Wallace reserves snoot for a “really extreme usage fanatic”, the sort of person whose idea of Sunday fun would have been to find mistakes in the late William Safire’s On Language column in the New York Times magazine. Safire was a style maven who wrote articles with intriguing opening lines such as this: “A sinister force for solecism exists on Madison Avenue. It is the work of the copywrongers”.

Growing up with a mother who would stage a “pretend” coughing fit when her children made a grammar error clearly contributed to Foster Wallace’s SNOOTitude. His 50-page essay “Authority and American Usage”, published in 2005, constitutes a brilliant, if somewhat eccentric, coverage of English grammar.

I need to be a bit of a snoot because part of my brief as a writing educator is to prepare graduates for their utilitarian need to function as writing workers in a writing-reliant workplace where professional standards are crucial and errors erode credibility. (I see the other part of my brief as fostering a love of language that will provide them with lifelong recreational pleasure.)

How do I teach students to avoid grammar errors, ambiguous syntax, and infelicities and gaucheries in style? In the closing chapter of my new book on effective writing, I list around 80 potential problems in grammar, punctuation, style, and syntax.

My hateful eight

My brief for this article is to highlight eight of these problems. Should I identify ones that peeve me the most or ones that cause most dissonance for readers? What’s the peevishness threshold of readers of The Conversation? Let’s go with mine, for now; they may also be yours. They are in no particular order and they depend on the writing context in which they are set: academic, corporate, creative, or journalistic.

Archaic language: amongst, whilst. Replace them with among and while.

Resistance to the singular “they” Here’s an unbearably tedious example from a book published in 2016 in London: “The four victims each found a small book like this in his or her home, or among his or her possessions, several weeks before the murder occurred in each case”. Replace his or her with their.

In January this year, The American Dialect Society announced the singular “they” as their Word of the Year for 2015, decades after Australia welcomed and widely adopted it.

Placement of modifiers. Modifiers need to have a clear, direct relationship with the word/s that they modify. The title of Rob Lowe’s autobiography should be Stories I Tell Only My Friends, not Stories I Only Tell My Friends. However, I’ll leave Brian Wilson alone with “God only knows what I’d be without you”, though I know that he meant “Only God knows what I’d be without you”.

And how amusing is this commentary, which appeared in The Times on 18 April 2015? “A longboat full of Vikings, promoting the new British Museum exhibition, was seen sailing past the Palace of Westminster yesterday. Famously uncivilised, destructive and rapacious, with an almost insatiable appetite for rough sex and heavy drinking, the MPs nevertheless looked up for a bit to admire the vessel”.

Incorrect pronouns. The irritating genteelism of “They asked Agatha and myself to dinner” and the grammatically incorrect “They asked Agatha and I to dinner”, when in both instances it should be me .

Ambiguity/obfuscation “Few Bordeaux give as much pleasure at this price”. How ethical is that on a bottle of red wine of unidentified origin?

The wrong preposition The rich are very different to you and me. (Change “to” to “from” to make sense.) Not to be mistaken with. (Change “with” to “for”). No qualms with. (Change “with” to “about”.)

Alastair Bennett/Flickr

The wrong word. There are dozens of “confusable” words that a spell checker won’t necessarily help with: “Yes, it is likely that working off campus may effect what you are trying to do”. Ironically, this could be correct, but I know that that wasn’t the writer’s intended message. And how about practice/practise, principal/principle, lead/led, and many more.

Worryingly equivocal language. After the Easter strike some time ago, the CEO of QANTAS, Alan Joyce, sent out an apologetic letter that included the sentence: “Despite some sensational coverage recently, safety was never an issue … We always respond conservatively to any mechanical or performance issue”. I hoped at the time that that’s not what he meant because I felt far from reassured by the message.

Alert readers will have noticed that I haven’t railed against poorly punctuated sentences. I’ll do that next time. A poorly punctuated sentence cannot be grammatically correct.

The Conversation

Roslyn Petelin, Associate Professor in Writing, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Teaching English As a Second Language


– As of June, 2013 there are 7,095,217,980 people in the world.
– Native languages spoken by percentage of the world’s population: 
– Mandarin Chinese 12.44%
– Spanish 4.85%
– English 4.83%
– Arabic 3.25%
– Hindi 2.68%
– Bengali 2.66%
– Portuguese 2.62%
– Russian 2.12%
– Japanese 1.8%
– Standard German 1.33%
– Japanese 1.25%
– Other 60.17%
– FACTOID: 7.100: estimated number of languages spoken in the world; about 80% of these are spoken by less than 100,000 people.
– English as a first language:
– English is spoken In 112 countries by over 335 million people.
– English is spoken by a total of over 765 million people, 335 million of those as L1 (Native) and 430 million as L2 (Second language) speakers.

TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) & TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language)

What’s the difference?
– TEFL – Teaching English as a Foreign Language.
– The term TEFL is used when English is being taught in a country where it isn’t the native language (for example teaching English to Chinese people in China).
– TESL – Teaching English as a Second Language.
– The term TESL is used when English is being taught to non-native speakers of English in a country where it is the native language (for example teaching emigrants in the United Kingdom or Canada).


– FACTOID: Worldwide, English is the language spoken by the greatest number of non-native speakers.
– Frequently, TEFL programs are instituted for professional purposes, as one of the most widely spoken languages in the world.
– A better grasp of English allows workers to more freely and better communicate with:
– 1. Contemporaries
– 2. Business associates
– 3. Potential customers in a global environment
– FACT: Practically every country in the world has some form of TEFL, whether it is government run, taught as a required subject in school, done through private institutions, or simply an individual or group of interested students studying under a qualified instructor.
– Teaching English as a Foreign Language is an incredible career opportunity for anyone interested, as the requirements are often far less strict than they are to teach English in a country where it is the native language.

Countries with the most TEFL and TESL teachers and programs:

– Argentina
– Australia
– Brazil
– Cambodia
– Colombia
– Canada
– Chile
– China
– Costa Rica
– Czech Republic
– Ecuador
– France
– Germany
– Greece
– Hungary
– Italy
– Japan
– Mexico
– New Zealand
– Poland
– Portugal
– Russia
– Slovakia
– South Africa
– South Korea
– Spain
– Thailand
– Turkey
– United Kingdom
– Vietnam

What are the salaries for English teachers abroad?

– 1. Depends on the teacher’s position, qualifications and the country where they teach.
– 2. Foreign English teacher salaries are typically, though not always, paid in local currency and should be viewed through the prism of the local cost of living.
– 3. Europe and Latin America: English teacher salaries abroad in these regions typically allow expatriate English teachers to live comfortably in an apartment, cover basic expenses, dine out, travel by public transportation and have some extra money to travel and pursue other interests. In most cases, first-time English teacher salaries will not enable you to save extensive sums, but in both regions, private lessons are in high demand and provide excellent opportunities for English teachers to earn additional income.
– 4. Asia: English teacher salaries will typically enable you to save between 30%-50% of your salary after expenses, which can range from $200-$300 a month in a country like Thailand to $ 1,000 or more a month in South Korea.
– 5. Middle East: English teacher salaries abroad in the UAE, and other Persian Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain are some of the highest in the as pay can range from $1,500 – $4,000 a month, with benefits including free housing, paid vacation, health insurance and flights to and from the teacher’s home country.
– 6. In less developed countries like Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Turkey, English teacher salaries will typically enable a first-time teacher to earn enough to support themselves comfortably, but should not expect to save much, if at all.


– 1. There are no standard international requirements for TEFL.
– 2. Desired qualifications and requirements vary from country to country.
– 3. In North and Central America and most of the Far East, the most important qualification is to have a good degree.
– 4. In South America, the European Union, the British Commonwealth and Central Europe qualification means having passed a 70-hour TEFL course and frequently having a university degree in any discipline.
– 5. Some countries require proof that the potential instructor attended the the majority of their schooling in an English speaking country.

Certifications that are frequently required:

– 1. Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA)
– 2. Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (Cert. TESOL)

For teaching young learners, age 4-18:

– 1. Certificate in English Language Teaching to Young Learners (CELTYL)
– 2. Certificate in Teaching English to Young Learners (Cert. TEYL)

Things to consider if you go:

– 1. Make yourself understood: For goodness sake, learn the language! While there is nothing like total immersion for learning to speak a foreign language, you want to arrive with more than a rudimentary smattering.
– 2. Language courses are available via apps or proframs like Rosetta Stone, but your local library probably has CD courses you can use if budget is a concern.
– 3. It will be a wise investment of time and money if you don’t have to refer to a phrase book just to ask where the restroom is.


– 1. Do you have a work visa, so that you can legally work in your country of choice?
– 2. Many countries like Japan require you to have a job already lined up in order to obtain a work visa. You can enter on a visitor’s visa and search for a job, at which point you can attempt to convert to a work visa, but if you fail you may find yourself leaving a country you came fully prepared to move to.

Local Laws:

– 1. There are many countries where local and cultural laws are different to those from where you originate.
– 2. Make sure to familiarize yourself with the laws of the land BEFORE heading to your desired country.
– 3. There are a many ways to land yourself in prison simply by doing things as you did them at home.

Moving to a new country can be incredibly stressful in and of itself, and concerns like health add a new dynamic that most people never consider. What if you’re hurt?

– 1. Do you have health insurance?
– 2. Does it apply when you’re in a foreign country?
– 3. If not, do you qualify for medical insurance in your country of choice.
– 4. If you are hurt in a foreign country, who is your medical contact?

Medical issue: Do you have preexisting medical conditions?

– 1. Do you have a medical condition that requires specialized care?
– 2. Do you take medication on a regular basis, and will it be allowed in your country of choice?
– 3. Will a note from your doctor or surgeon suffice in justifying your need for the medication, or do you need to visit a doctor when you get there?
– Check it out: Schools in some countries provide national health insurance and paid vacation time. In other cases, employers provide free accommodation and utilities to help teachers with living expenses.
– Another perk could include the reimbursement of airfare. Such benefits will vary from region to region and job to job.

Financial issues:


– 1. You have a job and money, but where are you going to put it?
– 2. Will you keep it under your mattress and simply pay in cash, or will you need to open a bank account?
– 3. What will you need in order to open a bank account, references, forms of identification?

Cost of living

– 1. How much money do you earn, and how much will be left over after paying rent?
– 2. What other expenses to you have?
– 3. Do you have to pay for transportation to work, taking a bus, train, or taxi.
– 4. Do you have an International driver’s license and will that suffice or do you require a local equivalent?
– 5. Can you cook, or will you have to learn?
– 6. Will you have enough money to explore the amazing new culture all around you?

Unexpected Outlay

– 1. Can you afford an unexpected expense like being out of work due to a broken leg?
– 2. If you need to fly home in an emergency, do you have a cash reservoir if you need it?


– 1. Depending on where you choose to work, cultures can vary greatly.
– 2. What is understood and commonplace in one country might be completely inappropriate in another.
– 3. Be aware of the culture into which you are moving, and attempt to adjust manners and habits accordingly. You don’t want to be making cultural faux pas like forgetting to remove your shoes or not wearing a head covering when called for.
– 4. Take the time to research and familiarize yourself with whatever the locals do.


Where are you going to live?

– 1. Do you have an apartment lined up, or did the company you’re working for set up an apartment for you?
– 2. How will you get furniture, and who will help you move it?
– 3. Moving to a new country is not like moving to a new town or city, you cannot simply drive your belongings over to your new residence. Chances are, when you move to your country of choice, you will have a bag or two of clothes and possessions, no furniture, and no group of annoyed friends to help you move in.

Cellphones, Internet, Wifi

– 1. You probably have a cellphone. Will it work internationally, or will you have to obtain a new phone when you arrive?
– 2. Is it a phone for work, and will it make international calls?
– 3. Which plan do you need to have in order to fill your needs.
– 4. How much will the phone plan cost on a monthly basis?
– 5. How does your phone bill affect your budget?
– 6. Will you need help switching the phone over to English?
– 7. Don’t assume that you will have 3G or 4G as you do here. You may have to pay extra for this.

In some countries, setting up an Internet connection can take time and be expensive. In others, Internet access is restricted and in others you may not be able to get a personal hook up at all, especially in some third world countries. You need to make yourself familiar with all that it will take to get yourself set up, especially if you need these for your work.