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A Sense Of Humor

A Sense Of Humor

May 26, 2012

Do Indians fail to recognise when a joke becomes an insult?

There is an idea about a sense of humor, which I have rarely seen in communities other than Indian. Be it said that most Indians do not adhere to this idea of what constitutes humor but most of those who adhere to this idea of humor seem to be Indian.

“I just love the way you give directions - Go straaaight! Turn left – the longer the straight goes on, the longer I have to go before I turn left”

That, said in an appropriate tone and to a friend, is meant as a joke. If the friend takes offence, it would not really be out of place to accuse him of lacking a sense of humor.

A sense of humor, to me, is the ability to laugh at one’s own idiosyncrasies. If you can laugh only when someone else is the butt of the jokes then your sense of humor may legitimately be considered to be deficient. Your laughing at those jokes is merely because you feel superior to the person who is the butt of the jokes and not a shared amusement at the foibles of humankind.

“Go straaaaaaaight! Turn Left? Dude, don’t you know a better way of indicating the distance for which I have to go straight other than this? It sounds horrid”

This may or may not be a joke to the recipient although I would not be particularly surprised if the recipient got angry about it. The moment someone starts adversely judging your foibles I’d consider him as bordering on insulting. Of course, depending on the length of your relationship and your idea of his personality, you could still laugh it off.

“Go straaaaaaaight! Turn Left? Dude, don’t you tamilians know a better way of indicating the distance for which I have to go straight other than this? It sounds horrid”

I am afraid that from this point onwards, it stops being a joke and starts becoming an insult. I may have a right to accept a value judgment about my own foibles as a joke but the moment someone plasters it across my community it ceases to be a one.

Rarely have I found people around the world accepting derogatory jokes about their community or their nation lying down. In fact, when someone is seen to laugh at such a joke when his community is the butt of the jokes, far from lauding him for his sense of humor his compatriot tends to look down on his lack of self respect. In India, however, insults dressed in humor can get passed off as jokes and you would even find people decrying the lack of your sense of humor if you got offended by any such statement. Any statement becomes racist the moment it generalizes about an entire community and is derogatory.

Let me reiterate the fact that if someone pulls my leg about my foibles or even addresses it to the entire community I belong to it can still be a joke as long as there is no inherent sub-text about others’ idiosyncrasies being better than mine. The moment the comment places my idiosyncrasies as being inferior to that of others, it becomes an insult. The very fact that the person felt free to make a derogatory joke about my community to my face either tells me that he thinks that I dare not take offence or that I have little sense of belonging to my community. If it was a thoughtless statement and I laugh it off, he would think either of the two going forth. I have found very few people who can respect someone trying to disassociate himself from his origins.

Self-deprecating humor, to my mind, is something that communicates, “I am not all that superior. I have my faults” and not one which revels in its inferiority. Whoever sold that bill of goods about a sense of humor making it necessary for you to swallow insults, merely because it is dressed up nicely, was a very good snake-oil salesman and, it seems, that his best customers came from India.

I have never had any use for snake-oil!


  • mysay
    19.08.13 11:02 PM
    Suresh ji,what I feel is we Indians actually are bad at discriminating between jokes and insults dressed in jokes ..
    We behave narrow minded when Stand Up comedians like Russel Peters takes a dig on Indians and Bollywood flaws or a celeb tattooing Om on belly button :) and at times our entire community and faith is mocked at and we laugh out .. like born dumbs !!
    And I have rarely heard an Indian mocking at people from other parts of the planet .May be the colonial feeling remains in the genes.
  • Rajpriya
    26.05.12 07:29 PM

    True, True, but I don’t want to be blamed for any such influence on the German language. I am really innocent. LOL


    I hope you are not going easy on him because he is a German? And you say he is your friend? In spite of your wife being deeply offended you continue to need his friendship?

    Germany too has a fair amount of scum just like any other country. I have been living here a long time and I don’t have such friends. I would recognize them the moment they open their mouth.

    Are you in Germany and do you speak German with an accent? That’s quite normal and it could take some time before you speak with out one. Find good friends.
  • C. Suresh
    C. Suresh
    26.05.12 05:26 PM
    @Rajpriya: Who knows? Maybe Tamilians did go over and settle Germany:):)

    @TF: My point is that in the case of foreigners doing this, and with negative comparisons, it is necessary to communicate that this is not on! And I certainly would indicate that it is offensive for him to make fun of my country. There are certain jokes about Germany that he would not take very kindly to either.
  • The Fool
    The Fool
    26.05.12 05:17 PM
    True, CS. But foreigners do this too. I have a German friend who makes fun of India and jokes about my accent, about outsourcing etc. As he is my friend, I go easy. But my wife felt deeply offended when she met him and hates him.
  • Rajpriya
    26.05.12 11:14 AM
    “I just love the way you give directions – Go straaaight! Turn left – the longer the straight goes on, the longer I have to go before I turn left”


    Yes! I agree it could be a little complicated understanding humor. Any German being at the butt end would say with a frown in the face ” Sehr witzig” meaning Very humorous.

    There is a similar expression in Germany (when asked for directions) that keeps me often wondering how long I should keep going "straaaight" on? Before I turn left.

    However, there is a built in answer in an answer you get. That goes like this: “bis es nicht mehr geht” meaning “until you can not go "straaaight" any more”

    Fahren sie immer gerade aus bis es nicht mehr geht und dann biegen sie links ab.

    That in English would mean, if you pronounce the word “immer” (always) a little extra hard as follows.

    Keep driving always “straaaight” on until you can’t go "straaaight" anymore and then turn left.

    It could be that the German language originated from Tamil.

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