What Parents and Teachers Should Know about Universal Humor

As a mom and teacher, I’ve learned about the power of humor, for good and bad. But unlike my husband, a good sense of humor doesn’t come naturally to me. This had me wondering about the universal nature of humor. In other words, is there universal humor and if so, what do parents and teachers like me need to know about it.

Universal humor is humor that’s accessible to all, breaking language; culture; age; and other barriers. All parents and teachers benefit from it because once its aspects are fully grasped, it can be applied in any situation, wherever you are. This is particularly useful when dealing with kids.

I’m happy to share what I’ve learned about humor from my years as a mom and teacher, as well as from my own research into humor types, including universal humor.

Keep reading to learn more about this, including cultural differences pertaining to humor; how Hollywood uses universal humor; and some tips and suggestions for humor-challenged parents and teachers like me.

One way to build humor with your kids is to use it strategically through routines or regular activities. For instance, our Fun Jokes For Kids Coloring Book is a great tool for embedding humor through kid-friendly activity.

What is meant by universal humor?

Let’s first talk about what is meant by the idea or concept of universal humor. In some ways, it’s actually debatable that universal humor exists, but I’ll share what I think given my unique, expert background, as well as some research that has provided evidence for universal humor.

Universal humor is humor that’s funny to just about everyone, regardless of background, culture, age, and so on. Many think it’s a myth, saying humor can’t cross boundaries, especially global ones. However, there are features of humor that are universal, even though boundaries make it tricky.

Some people thing that humor can’t be universal because of cultural differences, for example. We’ll look at that more in depth in the next section. Others think that humor can’t be universal because of age. This is what’s behind the Boomer vs. Millennial memes. Then, some say humor can’t be universal because it’s too connected to our personalities. However, I think that’s actually an argument for the universality of humor.

Some Universal Features of Humor:

  • Every human is born with the ability to laugh. Babies have been noted to laugh at 17 days old, while even deaf and blind people laugh.
  • Even animals have been known to laugh, such as monkeys and rats.
  • Laughter and humor are parts of all cultures.
  • Laughter and thus humor cross social and economic lines. This means you can find humor, regardless of being rich or poor, for instance, you just might have a different sense of humor.
  • Laughter and humor are signs of contentedness or excitability (and of course, other emotions, too).
  • Laughter from a good sense of humor benefits our health, no matter who we are.
  • A good sense of humor is valued in almost all societies (it’s just that the definition of what IS a good sense of humor might vary).

And I’ll share more about how parents and teachers specifically can benefit from universal humor with kids in a later section, too. So keep reading!

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Cultural Differences and Humor

Chris Smit is an experienced business consultant and coach for intercultural relations and communication, and as such, is familiar with the nuances of universal humor.

One of the biggest arguments against universal humor is cultural differences. And no one can argue that there are differences from culture to culture, but likewise, we all have things in common too. And that’s where I say universal humor blurs the lines.

Cultural differences affect our perceptions of humor. For instance, Americans are prone to loud, overt humor while Brits are known for wry, deadpan humor. Even so, it’s not strictly one way or the other. Culture certainly provides context for humor, but you’ll find universal features everywhere.

Humor is a universal phenomenon but is also culturally tinted.

Tonglin Jiang, Hao Li, and Yubo Hou

Some ‘Facts’ About Cultural Humor (2009):

  • If you laugh when a Finnish person enters the room, they’re less likely to be concerned; whereas a Thai person’s affective filter is raised.
  • Americans rate less humble when it comes to humor. When we’re laughed at, we get over the quickest.
  • Indonesians fear doing something that makes them look foolish, silly, or they consider embarrassing more than any other.
  • The Japanese rate the highest for difficulty getting over being laughed at.

Gelotophobia: the fear of being laughed at

But despite these differences, one thing is clearly universal from this study, and the ISHS (International Society for Humor Studies): no one likes being make fun of or laughed at. It affects us to different degrees, but it’s something we all have in common about humor.

Western Humor Vs. Eastern Humor

What about the differences in western and eastern humor, specifically? I’ve already provided some study results in the previous section, but we’ll dive a bit deeper now.

Though the four types of humor are universal, there are distinct cultural aspects in western and eastern humor. Westerners view humor as a positive trait; and useful for amusement and as a coping device, while eastern cultures prefer being serious over humorous, and feel it isn’t socially desirable.

According to LaughLab, established in 2001 with the pairing of psychologist Richard Wiseman and the British Science Association for scientific research on jokes, there are some distinguishing characteristics for humor when it comes to various cultures. Below I’ve listed the division between western and eastern humor.

Humor in Western CulturesHumor in Eastern Cultures
Humor is considered a positive feature. Humor is not valued as a coping mechanism.
Humor is seen as natural for amusement.It’s more desired to be serious than humorous.
Humor is considered a highly desirable trait for individuals.Being humorous could jeopardize social status.
Humorous people are thought to be more attractive and creative.Humor is not considered a creative trait.
Having a good sense of humor is a leadership quality.
Being humorous means you’re not orthodox to your culture.
Good humor is perceived as being self-aware and healthy.Humor is more likely to be associated with negative adjectives.
Good humor means you’re easy to get along with.Easterners are less likely to claim to be humorous or rate their friends and family as humorous.
Westerners have a maladaptive sense of humor. This means it’s used more as an individual approach.
Easterners have an adaptive sense of humor (in the sense, that they have a collectivist approach).
Table to Provide What Research Says About Western Vs. Eastern Humor

But of course, all of this is a generalization, but still based on years of sincere, dedicated research.

Special Note: Although there’s some very clear differences in how humor is viewed in western and eastern cultures, sometimes humor is shared too. This is clear when we think of the many comedies, both animated and live-action that cross borders in appeal, being just as popular in the US as Germany and China. And while Marvel movies like Spiderman: No Way Home and Avengers: Endgame is full of adventure and action, they’re also well known for their comedic timing and funny dialogue, enjoyed universally.

Different Types of Humor and Universal Humor

Let’s now see how universal humor fits in with the documented four types of humor.

There are four types of humor, as delineated by researcher/psychologist Rod Martin and his colleagues. They are affiliative humor; aggressive humor; self-enhancing humor; and lastly, self-defeating humor. And guess what? Further research corroborates these types are universal!

“The four types of humor have been found to be applicable in different countries…However, people from different cultural backgrounds may use them in different ways.”

Frontiers in Psychology, 29 January 2019

For example, while all forms of humor are evident in various cultures studied across the world, some cultures used one form over the other more often.

  • Affiliative humor is more prevalent in socially cohesive cultures.
  • Aggressive humor is increased in cultures that our more competitive in their social and economic communities.
  • The concept of ‘saving face’ is considered incredibly important in Chinese culture, thus, they are rated as more likely to use self-enhancing humor to cover up individual mistakes.  
  • Humor is context connected in many cases and linguistically dependent. This means that the old adage ‘Lost in translation’ is true for some jokes and comedic stories.

How can parents and teachers use universal humor tactics?

Watch Mojo has compiled the best movie/film slapstick humor clips from over the years.

Now what does this all mean, particularly for us parents and teachers who are humor-challenged? Well, several things in fact.

Parents and teachers can benefit from universal humor, once they get what’s universal about it. Like all good teachers think, the skill of humor can, after all, be taught/learned like anything else. So once teachers and parents figure out universal humor, they can apply it to enhance their own humor standing.

To reiterate what’s been said (i.e. ‘what we know about universal humor’): All four types of humor exist cross-culturally. However, there are certain ones that are better suited for use with children, specifically, affiliative and self-enhancing humor. It’s best to avoid aggressive humor with kids, and self-defeating humor should be cautiously utilized.

With that, we can move forward to more specific, concrete humor tactics.

One very useful style of humor across cultures is slapstick. This humor is easier to comprehend and recognize. It limits language and is overt and simplified in most cases. It’s why it’s the favorite of little kids everywhere!

Some Slapstick Comedians/Comedies Popular All Around the World (all links to Amazon):

On a personal note, I’ve never been as funny as my husband, but I’ve learned from him some universal features of humor. I promise it works! And I know this from experience of being married to my husband for longer than either of us can usually remember! No matter where he is, little kids gravitate to him, even the shyest ones!

My husband’s Universal Humor Tips: That work with all kids, everywhere!

  • Act like a clown.
  • Make everything a game.
  • Smile big. In fact, exaggerate all facial expressions.
  • Look shocked and big-eyed.
  • Stick out your tongue!
  • Smack your head.
  • Be silly.
  • Poke, when applicable.
  • Make goofy sounds.
  • Use gibberish.
  • Say nonsensical things. Like you’re 500 years old; or they are!
  • Argue with them about inarguable things. Say ‘no, nope, nuh uh.’

The key here is to be overt; obvious; and clearly humorous. That’s what makes it universal. Silliness works everywhere. And what I realized is, he’s not afraid of looking goofy or being silly. You can’t get embarrassed. Kids will sense if you are uncomfortable…then it’s not funny; it’s just weird.

Important Concern? When incorporating universal tactics as described above with kids, you might worry that it will impede your authority. I had this legitimate concern, too. However, I can attest that no one has more proven authority with kids than my husband, and yet he’s able to have 2-12 year olds rolling on the floor with laughter in no time at all! As a karate teacher with decades of practical experience, he’s commanded the most rambunctious classrooms with ease. He’s wrangled 30 two and three-year-olds without a beat, having them eating out of his hands, and also listening attentively and following all directions!

Universal Humor Punchline

So the punchline about universal humor is this: Humor is universal. Research has proven this. But in all practical sense, parents and teachers can utilize slapstick humor and it pretty much works universally, wherever you are.

The reason slapstick is universal is that it’s simple; overt; and clearly humorous so there’s little room for misunderstandings or misconceptions. Even the shyest, most introverted kids everywhere will smile if you make a silly face at them. Go ahead and try it. I dare ya!

To read more from Fun Jokes about humor, I recommend these next:

Jackie Booe

A mother to four kids, grandmother ("Oma") to a growing number, a retired teacher for over 18 years, and a wife to Mat since 1994, Jackie knows kids and laughter. She holds a license to teach in 3 states and is certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners, with practical experience at all levels. She holds three degrees in the field of education and has taught education courses online at the university level as an adjunct professor, too. She has mentored numerous education interns, hosted professional development for educators, and tutored, in addition to homeschooling her own children.

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