Are women allowed to joke?

Is it true that a good measure of how well you know a foreign language is that you get the humor? If so, I failed German a decade or so ago when the Lufthansa agent in Frankfort very dryly told me that all seats in coach were taken because my connecting flight had gotten in so late, so I would only be able to fly across the Atlantic if I accepted business class. He said it in such a negative tone, I looked at him in disbelief and switched to English. Then he started laughing and I got it.

Another humor moment that stands out was at a chair’s meeting at Rice many years ago. I guess it had been a long meeting, or this would not have happened. I don’t remember the specifics, but we chairs, math, physics, chemistry, geology, etc., normally a rather dour group, devolved into a kind of humorous double speak. Bonding was increasing and we were on the verge of solving the problem that had led to the humor escalation. Unfortunately the dean did not get it and thought we were all fighting with each other, so  dismissed the meeting early. Giggles were heard in the hall afterwards to the confusion of our well-meaning dean.n1026872938_30199725_7354598

Humor of all kinds has been prized in my family, perhaps from my father’s roots as a half-jew in Nazi Berlin, or just perhaps because of the famous humor of Berliners. Humor takes different forms. My husband is the master of the perfect pun. Sarcasm and dry humor can confuse those not used to it, but can make the intolerable survivable. It would not surprise me if humor were an under-class thing, but I am not a social scientist.

There was a time when feminists were said not to have a sense of humor. This always baffled me. If the jokes made women the butt, of course they would not find them funny, but not to have a sense of humor at all? It sure didn’t match my experience. But maybe in humor as in so many things the rules are different for women.

Richard D. Alexander, my mentor from the University of Michigan, has studied all things human from an evolutionary perspective. Part of his work might relate to women and humor. In 1986 he wrote a thoughtful piece on humor, ostracism, and indirect reciprocity, reprinted with an excellent companion piece by Stan Braude in the Summers and Crespi volume that reprints many of Dick’s works on humans. Dick’s goal with his piece is to develop a set of hypotheses for the advantage of humor. The main idea is that humor is a form of ostracism to those that do not get the joke, or to oneself as a kind of false modesty. It is a way of increasing the bonds within groups at the expense of those outside. He also comes up with a taxonomy of humor from shaggy dog stories to puns.

Stan Braude in his introductory piece begins with a joke which most of us will not get at first, beginning “So two orthopterists walk into a bar…”. He moves on to say how tedious and counterproductive it is to explain jokes, summarized Dick’s views on ostracism, then talked about some really interesting ideas on humor and scenario building skills focusing on increasing ability to anticipate surprise. He ties this to music and art appreciation and development. Youngsters might only get simple melodies with easy surprises. As we listen to more and more music and learn to pick out ever more complex themes, our capacity for surprise becomes much more nuanced. If the same goes for humor, then the most advanced forms would be so dry as to be often missed, but very valuable for connoisseurs making their way through this complex world.

Have I tread too far into this realm? Why just yesterday my youngest son on the phone commented that he was missing my jokes that day. The one I remember was pretending I thought LOL means lots of love.

Humor is what lets a liberal survive Texas and makes Molly Ivins our patron saint. But humor is not so apparent in the nice corridors of my Missouri department. So maybe that is why I got into so much trouble for a joke misunderstood late last year.

That unpleasant event has me rethinking humor, women, power, and regionalism. It makes me understand better those who conform religiously. The rules are different for women, really different for powerful women. Ignore them at your peril. No one expects you to joke, so you better not do it, even with people you thought were your friends, I’m sad to report.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Life in a biology department, Managing an academic career, Politics, Social interactions and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Are women allowed to joke?

  1. Nancy Dudek says:

    I like it that you blog about complex and difficult BIG IDEAS, even the ones that sting.

    Humor rules are different for women. We are not supposed to ‘call out’ people who are using humor to insult a group. We are supposed to join in and laugh (be bubbly! smile!)

    The rules are also different for young people working with older people (for example, grad students working with professors). Add in ethnicity and class(can staff joke with the faculty? about what?) and you have even more rules.

    No one writes the rules and no one knows what the rules are. Not even a professional like Chris Rock in this Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross:

  2. This was a delightful read, and now I just want to hear the joke …

    • You mean Stan’s joke, from the book? That you can find. That’s all, though.

      • Perhaps I misunderstood, but it was where you said “So maybe that is why I got into so much trouble for a joke misunderstood late last year” I was interested in what joke you were referring to, that lead you into getting trouble.

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