His Name Was Bond … Humor Bond

“Where there is a shared situation and fellowship…humor shines.”

I never gave much thought to how differently humor can be interpreted from culture to culture until a few years ago when I met someone who was in the language translation business. I just assumed that you look at a word in English and then you find the same word in another language. Hello is ‘Bonjour’ in French. “Voila!” There it is! But it’s not that simple. When an article, book, or any written document is being translated into another language, there is more to do than a simple word-for-word translation. One must consider the context in which the words are used and what type of tone and emotions the words are supposed to convey or elicit.

It’s difficult enough getting people to laugh at a joke when you’re speaking the same language but when it comes to expressing humor in another language, there is much to consider. Often a joke is funny within a certain region because of references specific to that area so it may not translate as funny in another culture. Also, it’s important to understand the different uses and meanings of words in another language because otherwise, you may cause unintended offense. My point in sharing this is not to talk about the language translation business or to delve into an exploration of humor in different cultures. I want to share a recent personal experience about how, despite its unique nature, humor was a bonding agent strong enough to overcome a language barrier.

About 10 years ago, I met a woman on a train who changed my life. When I look back on the October day that I boarded a train from the Gare du Nord railway station in Paris to van Gogh’s grave in Auvers-sur-Oise, I guess I wasn’t really lost. I didn’t realize then, that I was actually in the right place at the right time to meet this wonderful woman. I found Marie DeGuines and we’ve been friends ever since.

Fast forward to September 2012. I spent a week with Marie and her husband, Jean-Claude, in Provence at a farmhouse they rented in Bonnieux. We had spent a week together two years earlier at their home in St. leu La Foret and we communicated pretty well, but I still wanted to improve my French for my 2012 visit. I brushed up with CDs from the library and weekly email exercises from the BBC but I would not say I was anywhere near fluent. While neither Marie, nor Jean-Claude, nor I, could speak the other’s language perfectly, we not only managed to communicate well – with some help from dictionaries, gestures and their granddaughter Chloe- but we even shared many laughs* and inside jokes.

My favorite memory of our humor bond was created the first night I spent in Provence. After a long day – especially long for me because of my flight – of sightseeing in Marseilles and Aix de Provence, we had a light dinner at home. Before going to bed, I gave them some gifts I brought from America. First, I gave Marie a beautiful mother-of-pearl pendant bearing the image of friend and artist Jack Puhl’s painting of New York City. This was special to both of us because she had visited NYC about five years earlier with her granddaughter Chloe. I had the privilege of taking her to the Brooklyn Bridge, Harlem, Central Park and to see her favorite NYC architecture: the Flat Iron Building. In addition to her souvenir, I also brought something that would give her and Jean Claude a taste of my home: Gertrude Hawk chocolates, which are a tradition in Scranton, PA.

After dinner, Marie put out a few sweet items, including the box of assorted chocolates I brought from Scranton. Jean Claude took a chocolate, put it in his mouth and began to chew. As tends to happen on occasion, he got some of the candy stuck in his throat and choked a bit (not the ‘He’s turning-blue, let’s call an ambulance choking’ but your basic, ‘Something is stuck in my throat and my eyes are watering’ kind of choking). As Jean-Claude choked, he said “American chocolates…terrorist.” The three of us laughed. Well, Jean-Claude laughed after he stopped choking.

A few days later when Jean-Claude began to choke on a piece of bread at dinner, he proclaimed “American chocolate!” The three of us looked at each other and laughed hysterically. It became the running joke for the week. We didn’t even have to say the words. If Jean-Claude, or any of us, got food caught in our throats, we thought about the chocolate candy and smiled.

Throughout our week together in beautiful southern France, we shared many laughs and I was once again reminded of the incredible power of humor. I believe that humor is a language of its own that we can all speak and understand better once we take the time to get to know one another and form social bonds. There’s nothing better to bring about healthy laughter than a shared joke…in any language.

*Many of the laughs we had came about during our laughter yoga session that I led on my second-to-last day in Provence. Laughter yoga has nothing to do with humor but it does have the same incredible power to bring people of all languages and differences together.

Watch the video here.