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How Your Cultural Heritage Is Reflected in Your Laughter

What we consider amusing is shaped by the society in which we are raised.

Key points

  • A person's sense of humor relates to perceived vulnerabilities, which in turn are intimately tied to the culture in which we are raised.
  • Religious, moral, and ethical upbringing helps determine what actions one considers normal, potentially questionable, and truly prohibited.
  • The political and social systems one is born into determine which life strategies are most successful, which are not, and the price of failure.

In previous posts, I focused on the small-scale influences affecting our understanding of vulnerability and its subsequent influence on our laugh response. These include personality, personal experience, family, mentors, friends, colleagues, and others with whom we interact personally. It’s noteworthy, however, that each of these unfolds within a much broader context. Of equal consequence are the societies we inhabit, in our formative years, which remain largely outside our individual control.

Each of us is born into an established system of politics and government, religion or ethics, economics, laws, language, artistic tradition, and so on. These are the dominant constituents of our culture—a non-genetic, intergenerational instruction system, the means by which we generate and pass on information that supplements or directs our core “animal” drives to find and procure food, water, shelter, and mates. Tools, clothing, medicine, food selection/preparation, and cooperative institutions are basic features of culture, ones strongly influenced until relatively recently by the natural environment in which we live. Decision-making systems, social structure, and economic strategies are also passed on culturally, both passively, through imitation, and actively, by means of a symbol-based educational system composed of language, mathematics, and art.

For some 95 percent of our species’ history, the primary cultural and economic system was that of hunter-gatherers. About 12,000 to 20,000 years ago, certain regions allowed for a successful transition to a more sedentary, agrarian arrangement, with many now supporting an industrial and/or information-based contingent. Cultural factors help define our resource supply (reliability and distribution), gender roles, demographics (group size, longevity, age distribution), mating systems, mobility, social hierarchy, age at independence, personal expressiveness, and so forth.

As with biological systems, cultural systems are constantly undergoing selective pressures—what tends to get passed on is what works best to ensure survival and reproduction. Because reproductive success is not determined solely by our physical attributes, contrasting potentially humorous vulnerabilities with serious deficiencies will necessarily depend on the cultural contexts in which we operate.

Many modern scholars provide in-depth looks at the wide-ranging cultural differences in humor use and appreciation. Here we need only consider two examples; you will be able to extrapolate to other aspects of culture with little trouble.


The biological and geographic factors that help shape a person’s culture are often supplemented by religious doctrine, a set of behavioral guidelines typically passed on to us by parents or caregivers. Religion provides us with a conceptual framework for dealing with the unknown and a means by which we might influence the forces that lay beyond our understanding or physical control. Religion functions to define the nature of these supernatural forces and, most importantly, the actions that help ensure their future benevolence. Thus, religious views help determine which behaviors are (or should be) considered appropriate norms, which are indications of serious moral or spiritual deficiencies, and which simply indicate regrettable, but excusable, vulnerabilities.

Religion may influence our propensity to laugh simply by attributing certain personality traits to the supernatural forces that directly or indirectly influence our lives. For example, those who believe in a deity or deities that are unconditionally loving, supportive, flexible, tolerant, forgiving, and sympathetic are likely to allow for a broader definition of normal and vulnerable traits than those who believe in deities having the opposite disposition.

Navneet Shanu/Pexels
Navneet Shanu/Pexels

What’s more, members of various religious faiths are susceptible to a wide range of variables affecting their social status, both as individuals and as a group. How secure is one’s religious heritage? Who are its role models? Does it have many followers who are well tolerated by other groups or is it small and persecuted? Do its admonitions for moral lapses take the form of private nudging, public humiliation, or torture and death? Does it stress kindness and humble graciousness toward those of other faiths or condemnation and conversion? Are there close or loose ties between religious and secular powers? Is there a hierarchy within the congregation? Is there a possibility of status improvement or are members bound to a particular level within the social hierarchy?

These religious, moral, and ethical philosophies color our view of our place in the social workings of the larger community. They help define the acceptable, the tolerable, and the condemnable. And they expand our definition and understanding of success beyond simple biological reproduction to that of cultural immortality (through art, invention, or exemplary behavior, for example) or spiritual immortality (attaining supernatural powers, reaching enlightenment or paradise, and so on).

Sociopolitical Ideology or National Identity

In much of the world, political views and national identities are inherited almost as automatically as DNA. Consequently, we tend to see others and their actions through a single, dominant ideological filter. We know that differentiating a sign of vulnerability from one of deficiency involves a determination of their presumed consequences. So, before we can establish whether a given trait or behavior constitutes a vulnerability, we must predict how it might affect individuals within the context of their sociopolitical environment. Being stubbornly independent, for example, increases the chance for success in some political and social systems and would be considered normal. The same strategy might be viewed as a vulnerability or deficiency in a social environment where being passively compliant brings the greatest rewards.

Alesia Kozik/Pexels
Alesia Kozik/Pexels

However they are determined, our political and national affiliations will shape our notions of vulnerability. Do we place greater value on personal freedoms or social order? What are the respective roles of men and women in society? How do we understand gender and sexuality? Do we find more justice in equal resource distribution or free-market capitalism? What are our views about elected versus appointed leaders, social stratification based on bloodlines or wealth, racial equality, farm versus manufacturing economies, strong central organization versus grassroots decision-making? How do we understand the worldwide status of our nation-state compared to others in our region or the world as a whole? All these factors play a role in determining our perceptions of vulnerability and, consequently, what we might and might not find amusing.

This post was drawn from Chapter 5 of Why We Laugh: A New Understanding.

© John Charles Simon


Simon, J. C. (2008). Why We Laugh: A New Understanding. Starbrook Publishing.

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