I recently escaped the bitter chill of Philadelphia in early March and traveled to Zamorano University (affectionately referred to here as ‘Zamo’), an oasis of warmth situated approximately 45 minutes outside of the capital city of Tegucigalpa, Honduras (or ‘Tegus’ as the locals call it). I was fortunate to be a part of a course studying the language and culture of various groups, ranging in age from children to college students, while traveling. We had the unique opportunity to work with Zamo students on their conversational English through the sharing of ‘dichos’ or proverbs. While translation from Spanish to English often proved difficult, the proverbs presented a way to bridge the language gap. Students had the chance to act out their proverbs, all the while subjecting themselves to the laughter of their fellow Zamo classmates as well as a few giggles from the American students. We also worked with children at REMAR, an orphanage on the outskirts of Zamo. While this trip was momentous in many ways, it was here that I had a humor epiphany.
While there is much research on the understanding of humor through cross-cultural communication in the fields of psychology, sociology, linguistics, and others (Bell, 2002, 2007; Coulson et al., 2006; Hay, 2001; Carrell, 1997), my epiphany came through physical humor, the kind of slapstick we’re accustom to from the likes of Charlie Chaplin or The Three Stooges.
You see, in Honduras, soccer is ingrained into the fabric of everyday life. Boys and girls alike know how to ‘bend it like Beckham’ – seriously. One mention of Mario Martinez’s goal in the 2012 Olympic quarterfinals against Brazil brings nods and smiles to many of the young faces. In case you missed it, take a look:
At REMAR, the young children place soccer balls at their friends’ feet and emulate the master, volleying the ball between the posts with flawless precision. They then place a ball by my feet, and I cross it through the air and onto the foot of an anxiously awaiting 13-year-old who dreams of playing for FC Barcelona. When they direct me to stand by the goal line and await a pass, I play along. Not only do I miss, but the ball also pops up and hits my face, knocking me to the ground. It is while I am on the ground that I come to a realization: I hear the children laughing. Similarly to the Zamo students’ feelings while acting out their proverbs, I, too, felt a pang of gelotophobia. There existed a major similarity to the classroom activity and the game: slapstick humor, above all else, seems to be universal in cross-cultural communication. We encountered language barriers and a few laughs through the translations, but it was not until the Zamo students acted out the proverbs that a real bond formed between the two groups of students, the native Spanish and English speakers, through laughter. The children at REMAR picked me up and helped to dust me off, all the while laughing and ‘high-fiving’ me for my mishap. They referred to me as ‘Martinez’ for the rest of my time there – a joke – easily translated and understood by all.
Was it our ability to let down our guard, to fumble and be picked up, that made the communication between these diverse groups possible? Is there something in the mishaps of the body that translates better than language? What other types of humor easily translate across cultures? My epiphany, much like my soccer skills, is still under construction, but for now, I’m headed outside to practice.
c 2015 Tara Friedman