Humor, Jokes, and Sarcasm: Who has the Last Laugh?

What happens when either the patient or the provider makes a joke during an interpreting assignment? Or maybe worse, what do you do if someone flirts with you during an assignment? These unpredictable situations may seem harmless and playful to the person making the joke but could lead to awkward and uncomfortable feelings for everyone. Having some tools and tips to help navigate these situations will make your job easier! Practicing the skills to interpret humor across cultures can help you strengthen the patient-provider relationship, leading to better health outcomes and fewer barriers to health for limited English proficient patients. 

Before diving in, we’d like to address culture, a critical component to interpreting humor, and frankly to all interpreting. Understanding some themes in humor and how they relate to the culture of the target and source language will help you decide which of these tips to use and when. Keep in mind that these tips are suggestions and may not be applicable to every situation. Doing some research about what things are found to be funny in certain cultures and exploring different cultural themes around humor can help us understand why certain jokes are or are not funny. We recommend doing some independent research to get an idea of what makes something funny in your target and source language, and how those two languages are similar and different. 

While there are some common themes across various cultures about what is funny, like body odor and physical ailments (Paris 2019), we must also consider that culture has a major impact on what is acceptable, wrong, or logical (Humor Research Lab 2015). Don’t forget about the active culture, which is “a person’s unique outlook, shaped by their individual life experiences” (The Cross Cultural Health Care Program 2014). While every culture has some shared beliefs, norms, and practices, we cannot assume that those will be reflected in every individual within a culture at any given time. 

While reading the following six tips, consider how they would work in your languages and cultural contexts. We won’t be able to apply each of these to every situation, but we hope they provide an opportunity for reflection. It may be helpful to invent your own scenarios or use ones that you’ve experienced previously and envision some alternative modes of action. When doing this, always consider the interpreter code of ethics! Accuracy, respect, and cultural competence are going to be key here. 

We first published this blog in The Medical Interpreter Blog.

Join us in December for a presentation on this topic:

Thursday, December 17, 2020.
Topic: Humor, Jokes, and Sarcasm: Who has the Last Laugh?
2:30pm Pacific / 4:30pm Central / 5:30pm EST

Presenter: Tamas Farkas
Offers IMIA CEUs – 0.15 CEUs

Tamas Farkas
Language Access Programs Director
The Cross Cultural Health Care Program

Michaela Kiley
Communications and Language Access Programs Coordinator
The Cross Cultural Health Care Program

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