In the question doc
fpsyg-07-01495 October 4, 2016 Time: 13:22 # 1
published: 04 October 2016
Gonzaga University, USA
National Taiwan Normal University,
Hunan University, UK
This article was submitted to
a section of the journal
Frontiers in Psychology
Received: 04 May 2016
Accepted: 16 September 2016
Published: 04 October 2016
Yue X, Jiang F, Lu S and
Hiranandani N (2016) To Be or Not To
Be Humorous? Cross Cultural
Perspectives on Humor.
Front. Psychol. 7:1495.
To Be or Not To Be Humorous? Cross
Cultural Perspectives on Humor
Xiaodong Yue1, Feng Jiang2*, Su Lu3 and Neelam Hiranandani1
1 Department of Social Science, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2 Department of Organization and
Human Resources Management, Central University of Finance and Economics, Beijing, China, 3 Department of Human
Resources Management, University of International Business and Economics, Beijing, China
Humor seems to manifest differently in Western and Eastern cultures, although little
is known about how culture shapes humor perceptions. The authors suggest that
Westerners regard humor as a common and positive disposition; the Chinese regard
humor as a special disposition particular to humorists, with controversial aspects. In
Study 1, Hong Kong participants primed with Western culture evaluate humor more
positively than they do when primed with Chinese culture. In Study 2a, Canadians
evaluate humor as being more important in comparison with Chinese participants. In
Study 2b, Canadians expect ordinary people to possess humor, while Chinese expect
specialized comedians to be humorous. The implications and limitations are discussed.
Keywords: Chinese, humor perception, humor evaluation, cultural priming, Western
On December 14, 2008, an Iraqi journalist startled attendees at a press conference at the prime
minister’s palace in Baghdad, Iraq, by throwing a shoe at U.S. President George W. Bush. After
the incident, Bush joked: “If you want the facts, it’s a size 10” (BBC, 2008). A few weeks later, on
February 2, 2009, a student threw a shoe at Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao as he was giving a speech at
the University of Cambridge. The student was removed from the lecture hall, but Premier Wen was
not amused: “this despicable behavior will do nothing to hold back the friendship of the Chinese
and British people” (China View, 2009). Two leaders, Western and Chinese, and two vastly di�erent
reactions to an unexpected insult, one humorous and one serious: the incidents highlight culturally
di�erent attitudes toward humor, the subject of this article.
Humor is a broad and multifaceted concept. The Oxford English dictionary defines humor
as “the faculty of observing what is ludicrous or amusing or of expressing it; jocose imagination
or treatment of a subject” (SOED, third edition). Humor encompasses amusement and comic
reactions (Simpson and Weiner, 1989), psychological cognitive appraisals comprising perceptions
of playful incongruity, mirthful emotions, and vocal-behavioral expressions of laughter (Martin,
2007, p. 10). Although humor is a universal human experience, people of di�erent societies
perceive and use humor di�erently (Martin, 2007; Yue, 2010). In the context of cross-cultural
di�erences between Westerners and the Chinese, Judge Wu said: “Whereas Westerners are
seriously humorous, Chinese people are humorously serious” (quoted in Kao, 1974, p. xviii).
Styles of humor are categorized as self-enhancing, a�liative, self-defeating, and aggressive
(Kuiper et al., 2004; Martin, 2007). The four humor types have been investigated across cultures to
show that both Westerners and Easterners are saddened and repelled by aggressive humor (Kuiper
et al., 2010). North Americans react positively to self-enhancing humor, while Easterners do not
(Kuiper et al., 2004; Chen and Martin, 2005). The cultural di�erences are attributed to the Western
individualistic versus Eastern collectivistic cultural distinctions. In other words, Easterners have a
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Yue et al. Culture and Humor
collectivistic orientation that blurs the distinction between self
and others so that they have weaker perceptions regarding self-
oriented (self-enhancing) and other-oriented (a�liative) humor.
In general, Western individuals tolerate and use humor more
than Chinese individuals do (e.g., Liao, 1998; Chen and Martin,
2007; Davis, 2011; Yue, 2011). Research has focused on specific
humor styles but not on general perceptions of humor. The shoe-
throwing incidents that sparked such diverse reactions inspired
us to examine how people from di�erent cultural backgrounds
view humor in general, rather than focusing on the specific
styles. We propose that Westerners will see humor as a positive
disposition that enhances self-actualization and interpersonal
relationships, and that everyone possesses the popular trait (e.g.,
Maslow, 1968; Martin, 2007). In contrast, the Chinese will view
humor as a controversial disposition in social interactions and
a personality trait possessed largely by specialists in humor-
related fields (e.g., Lin, 1974; Yue, 2010, 2011; Davis, 2011; Xu,
2011). Next we present a detailed description of the two views on
The Western View on Humor
Westerners tend to take humor as a natural feature of life
and to use it wherever and whenever possible (Apte, 1985). In
fact, Westerners have valued humor since the era of Plato and
Aristotle as a natural expression of amusement, fun, and delight
in social interactions (Grant, 1924/1970). The 19th and early 20th
centuries are thought to be the beginning of a golden age of
humor, particularly for American society (Bier, 1968; Blair and
Humor is ubiquitous in American society and nothing escapes
from becoming its target. Humor in its numerous techniques
and forms is directed at the population through all conceivable
channels – newsprint, magazines, books, visual and plastic
arts, comedy performances, and amateur joke-telling contests,
as well as many types of artifacts such as T-shirts, watches,
bumper stickers, greeting cards, sculptures, toys, and so forth
(Apte, 1985, p. 30).
Freud (1928) posited that humor is an e�ective defense
mechanism against negative emotions. On one hand, laughter
releases excess nervous energy; on the other hand, humor
provides alternative perspectives about fear, sadness, or anger in
the face of incongruous or amusing components (Martin, 2007).
Early 20th century Western psychologists argued that humor and
laughter enhance human health (e.g., Sully, 1902; McDougall,
1922), promote creativity (e.g., Guilford, 1950; Richards, 1990),
and strengthen coping and optimism (e.g., Walsh, 1928).
Western research shows that humor could be an indispensable
“panacea” in daily life to facilitate coping (e.g., Lefcourt et al.,
1995; Kuiper and Martin, 1998; Moran and Massam, 1999;
Lefcourt, 2001), promote impression management (e.g., Mettee
et al., 1971), and enhance interpersonal attraction (e.g., Fraley
and Aron, 2004). In addition, Westerners tend to regard humor
as a core trait of self-actualization (Maslow, 1968; Mintz, 1983;
Mindess et al., 1985) and an essential characteristic of creativity
(Guilford, 1950; Sternberg, 1985).
Moreover, in the West, individuals who engage in humorous
behavior are often perceived as positive and attractive (Bressler
et al., 2006). Westerners tend to rate humor as an ideal and
critical personal characteristic for dating or romantic partners
(Hansen and Hicks, 1980; Regan and Joshi, 2003). Beyond
romantic a�liations, Westerners have positive perceptions about
humorous individuals. For example, a study in organizational
contexts revealed that subordinates view humorous supervisors
as more motivating, confident, friendly, intelligent, and pleasant
leaders (Decker, 1987; Priest and Swain, 2002). Similarly, in
competitive sports contexts, players wanted to play for a
humorous coach and perceived the coach as competent (Grisa�e
et al., 2003). In short, in Western society, people who have a
sense of humor are positively perceived as more extroverted and
socially desirable; in contrast, those who lack a sense of humor
draw negative perceptions (Allport, 1961; Cann and Calhoun,
2001; Priest and Swain, 2002).
As such, it is no surprise that President Bush joked about
the size of the shoe that was thrown at him. True to Western
perceptions of humor, he demonstrated wit and charisma in the
face of an embarrassing situation.
The Chinese View on Humor
In China, humor was first documented about 2,000 years ago
(Yue, 2010; Chey, 2011; Davis, 2011). The Chinese term huaji is
regarded as an alternative word for humor meaning wit, irony,
and sarcasm (Chen, 1985; Liao, 2003). The earliest form of
Chinese humor could be pai shuo, which means small talk or
jokes (see Yue, 2010, for a review). In the 1920s, Lin Yu-tang
(1895–1976), a well-known writer and scholar, used the Chinese
character youmo as the Chinese version of humor. Since then,
youmo has widely represented wit, irony, and hilarity (Lin, 1974).
Although humor has a long past, for the past 2000 years it
has been devalued under Confucianism (Lin, 1974; Yue, 2010,
2011; Xu, 2011). Lin (1974) used the term Confucian Puritanism
to depict how humor was despised:
Confucian decorum put a damper on light, humorous
writing, as well as on all imaginative literature, except poetry.
Drama and the novel were despised as unworthy of a
respectable scholar’s occupation…… This puritanical, austere
public attitude has persisted to this day (Lin, 1974, p. xxxi).
As such, the Confucian way of a gentleman requires restraint
from laughter to demonstrate dignity and social formality
(Yue, 2010; Xu, 2011). The Confucian doctrine of moderation
advocates against hilarious laughter because it expresses extreme
emotion (Liao, 1998). The Confucian orthodox literary writings
forbade humorous expressions as being beneath proper literature
(Lin, 1974; Yue, 2010; Qian, 2011). Confucius even said “a man
has to be serious to be respected” (Liao, 2007). As a result, the
Chinese feel that they should laugh only at certain times, in
conjunction with certain subjects, and only with certain people
If they chose to laugh, Chinese people were advised to laugh
gently. Chinese women were advised to cover their mouths with
their hands (Lin, 1934). In short, owing to Confucian concerns
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Yue et al. Culture and Humor
for maintaining proper social order and hierarchy, proper
humor is “a form of private, moderate, good-natured, tasteful,
and didactically useful mirth” (Xu, 2011, p. 70). Consequently,
Chinese people have long scorned public humor. Confucian
moralists feared that once humorous writing styles spread,
life would lose its seriousness, and sophistry would overturn
orthodoxy (Yue, 2010, 2011; Sample, 2011).
Though humor has thrived in China since the downfall of
the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Chinese people are still heavily
influenced by cultural biases against public humor that are
deeply rooted in Confucianism (Davis, 2011; Xu, 2011). For
example, humor has been consistently omitted from the list of
qualities required for being a typical and creative Chinese thinker
(Rudowicz and Yue, 2000, 2003; Rudowicz, 2003; Yue et al., 2006;
Yue, 2011). Loud laughter tends to make Chinese people feel
nervous and uncomfortable (Liao, 1998). In addition, Chinese
students tend to consider themselves as being less humorous than
Canadian students, and they tend to use less humor to cope with
stress (Chen and Martin, 2005). Similarly, American students
rated sexual and aggressive jokes as funnier than Singaporean
Chinese students who preferred harmless humor (Nevo et al.,
2001). Those findings support the claim that Chinese prefer a
“thoughtful smile” to “hilarious laughter” (Lin, 1974). Thus, it
is no surprise that Premier Wen would respond sternly to the
shoe-throwing incident to keep his dignity.
Consistent with those observations, Yue (2011) systematically
reviewed Chinese perceptions and identified three Chinese
ambivalences toward humor. First, the Chinese tend to value
humor but devalue humor as a trait of self. Chinese traditional
social norms value seriousness, so Chinese people tend to
fear that being humorous will jeopardize their social status.
For instance, although Chinese undergraduates self-reported
that humor is important in everyday life, they reported that
they were not humorous themselves (Yue et al., 2006; Yue,
2011). Second, as Yue (2011) explained, being humorous
is inappropriate for orthodox Chinese because Confucianism
has equated humor with intellectual shallowness and social
informality (Yue, 2010). For example, Chinese students do not
rank humor as characteristic of an ideal Chinese personality
(Rudowicz and Yue, 2003; Yue et al., 2006). Chen (1985) argued
that Chinese jokes have always focused on “denial humor” that
criticizes reality and “complimentary humor” that praises reality,
in contrast with the “pure humor” that makes people laugh in
Western jokes. Third, the Chinese tend to believe that humor is
important but only for professional entertainers with exclusive
expertise and special talent.
Although the four styles of humor have been examined cross-
culturally, few empirical studies have examined cross-cultural
di�erences on general humor perceptions (e.g., Nevo et al.,
2001; Jiang et al., 2011). Jiang et al. (2011) found that Chinese
undergraduates tended to associate humor with unpleasant
adjectives and seriousness with pleasant adjectives; the opposite
was true for American undergraduates. Such a finding indicates
that Westerners and Chinese may hold di�erent views toward
humor in general. In addition, little work has been done to
provide a comprehensive picture of the cultural di�erences
on humor perception. Therefore, we conducted two studies
to systematically verify the proposed dichotomy between the
Western and Chinese view on humor.
OVERVIEW OF THE RESEARCH
Two studies were conducted to examine Western versus Chinese
views on humor. In Study 1, Hong Kong Chinese participants
(bicultural samples) were first primed with either Western culture
icons or Chinese culture icons. Then they were asked to use
adjectives from a list to describe a humorous person. We expected
the priming with Western culture icons would cause Hong Kong
participants to assign significantly more positive adjectives, while
the priming with Chinese culture icons would have the opposite
e�ect. In Study 2a, participants from Canada and China were
asked to rate the importance of humor, self-humor, and sense
of humor. We expected that the Chinese would give significantly
lower ratings to all three. In Study 2b, participants from Canada
and China were asked to identify the names and occupations
of up to three humorous persons. We expected that Canadian
participants would nominate significantly more ordinary people
than Chinese participants, and Chinese participants would
nominate significantly more humor-relevant specialists such as
comedians and cartoonists. Taken together, we hoped to find
consistent findings for the proposed dichotomy between Western
and Chinese views on humor.
We conducted Study 1 as a between subject design by priming
Chinese and Western cultural di�erences. Bicultural Hong Kong
people are considered appropriate for cultural priming studies.
(For details, see Hong et al., 2000). Our purpose was to determine
whether study participants exposed to pictures associated with
Chinese or Western culture would be induced to perceive
di�erent qualities in a humorous person.
Participants and Design
Ninety-six Hong Kong college students (31 men, 65 women)
were recruited. They averaged 24.01 years old (SD = 3.78 years).
Participants were randomly assigned to two experimental
groups: the Chinese picture-priming condition or the Western
picture-priming condition. Following the priming (about 15 s),
participants were asked to judge a humorous person by choosing
from a list of 40 adjectives (Zhang et al., 1998). Oral instructions
were given in Chinese and English and were counterbalanced
across the priming condition to reduce potential language
biases (e.g., Meier and Cheng, 2004). After the experiment, all
participants were debriefed, thanked, and dismissed.
Materials and Procedures
We used 26 priming pictures, 13 for each culture (Figures 1
and 2), from priming materials developed by Ng and Lai (2009)
and based on the work of Hong et al. (2000). Moreover, the
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Yue et al. Culture and Humor
while Westerners value it (Kuiper et al., 2010). The di�erent
cultural views may lead to cultural biases. For instance, Chinese
children tend to see humor as aggressive and disruptive (Chen
et al., 1992). Consequently, Americans and Chinese who try to
communicate cross culturally many find that cultural variations
regarding humor may disrupt their communications.
Third, we are not saying that Chinese people lack humor.
On the contrary, abundant evidence shows that humor has been
common and popular throughout Chinese history (Xiao, 1996).
Instead, we argue that Confucian biases have caused public
humor to be more “in deeds than in words, more practiced than
preached” in China (Kao, 1974, p. xxii). Thus, before a Chinese
leader such as Wen Jiabao could joke about an embarrassing
situation, the general Chinese population must first see humor
as positive and desirable. They must go beyond Confucian
puritanism that frowns on humor and instead learn to value,
appreciate, and use humor whenever and wherever possible
(Chen and Martin, 2005; Yue, 2010, 2011).
As Lin Yutang said, “the secret of humor is to be natural and
to be oneself, to face oneself in the mirror and to tear down the
hypocritical disguise” (Qian, 2011, p. 211). After all, the ability
to laugh at ourselves comes from broad-minded detachment
regarding our own imperfections. And this remains to be further
examined in later studies.
Limitations and Future Directions
The current study has several inherent limitations that should
be noted. First, Hong Kong Chinese, not Mainland Chinese,
participated in Study 2. As Hong Kong is highly westernized,
the students may not perfectly represent Chinese society. The
findings may lend credence to the expectation that Mainland
Chinese will show even greater di�erences with Westerners.
Consequently, future investigations should replicate the current
findings with more Mainland Chinese samples. Second, although
the results of Study 2a are consistent with what we found in
Studies 1 and 2b, it still bears the contamination of culture-related
response biases (e.g., Chen et al., 1995; Heine et al., 2002). As
we know, people from di�erent cultures tend to use di�erent
referents in their self-reported values. Thus, Canadians in the
current research evaluated humor in comparison with other
Canadians, whereas Chinese evaluated humor in comparison
with other Chinese. In addition, Chinese are more likely than
Canadians to use the midpoint on self-reported scales (e.g.,
Markus and Kitayama, 1991; Chen et al., 1995). For future
investigations, it would be necessary to measure participants’
evaluation on both humor and seriousness. In doing so, we
can examine the di�erences of rating patterns instead of direct
rating scores between Chinese and Canadians. In other words,
it allows us to investigate whether Canadian participants would
rate humor as being more important to them than being
serious, while the opposite pattern would be true for Chinese
participants. Third, the nomination method (Study 2b) helped to
validate the two contrasting views of humor between the West
and the East, but social media influences and entertainment
development could be confounding factors (e.g., Buijzen and
Valkenburg, 2004). Therefore, future studies should control
for interfering factors. Fourth, all samples were confined to
university students. For broader generalization, future studies
should recruit participants of various ages and from various
The current research provides new evidence and a broader
perspective for studying cultural di�erences regarding humor
perception. Westerners view humor as a commonly owned trait
and as a positive disposition for self-actualization. In contrast, the
Chinese consider humor to be restricted to humor professionals
and less desirable for social interactions. Two studies employing
priming paradigm, questionnaire measurement, and nomination
technique presented in this paper reveal the dichotomy. We hope
that these findings stimulate future studies that venture further
into the frontier area of humor.
All authors conceptualized the manuscript, XY and FJ wrote the
first complete draft, XY and SL contributed additional writing, FJ,
SL, and NH contributed data collection and analysis, all authors
edited the manuscript and approved the final version.
The current work was supported by Research grant of City
University of Hong Kong (No. 7004315) awarded to XY, and
National Natural Science Foundation of China awarded to FJ
(No.71401190) and SL (No.71401036).
We would like to thanks Mr. Chun Wing Lai for helping data
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