, July 16, 2024

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Humor Me! A Proposal for the UN to Seriously Study Humor to Make the World a Better Place


  •   6 min reads
Humor Me! A Proposal for the UN to Seriously Study Humor to Make the World a Better Place
440Hertz, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Our age of instant communication and global issues urgently requires space for humor: the United Nations too could look to humor to do things better

by Richard Seifman

In another month there will be a meeting of most nations on the planet at the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly. There will be speeches, committee meetings, and resolutions on all sorts of matters, with some items likely to approach near-universal consensus. What will not be either a central topic or rarely if ever mentioned or discussed, nor a world conference proposed, is the treatment of the “State of the World’s Humor”.

Different now than in the 1940s when the UN was founded is that we live in a much more interconnected world. With extensive social media, global informational access, and the arrival of generative artificial intelligence, this is a time when the UN is in need of greater support at the grassroots level, not just by international and country leaders.

Yet humor is an intrinsic part of human communication and plays a significant role in connecting people from diverse backgrounds. One reason it may not be a subject in international relations is that the extent to which the assembled political leaders could treat “humor” with humor, and not dishwater dull, may likely be why the United Nations Humor Organization (UNHO?) hasn’t yet been created.

Joe Binen via Flickr

Looking at what is funny and why we do it

The ability to find amusement and pleasure in the absurdities of life is an intrinsic and universal part of the human condition. However, it remains a vastly unexplored territory in international relations and collaborations.

While there is indeed a global happiness index, there is no tool to collect data and address the state of the world’s humor. That could well be one of the reasons that the United Nations, the global governing body, has not fully recognized and embraced this vital aspect of human culture.

Humor is a powerful tool that can foster social connections, alleviate tension, and even provide insightful social commentary on various issues. It reflects the diversity of human experiences and perspectives, transcending cultural and linguistic barriers. Even different accents can be a poignant testimony of deep social realities, as Trevor Noah explains in his signature satirical style:

Recently, when the COVID pandemic was at its height, I collected the humor that had emerged as a result in the affected countries. It turned out to be encyclopedic and I had to limit myself to a few striking examples to illustrate how humor can help us when we find ourselves in dire straits. In that case, as I pointed out, humor did turn out to be “the best vaccine against depression”.

Yet, humor varies across different societies, influenced by historical contexts, cultural norms, and societal values. Its wide-ranging forms include satire, sarcasm, self-deprecating jokes, wordplay, and visual humor.

The absence of humor in United Nations discourse may warrant recalling what its founders in the 1940s correctly thought was the raison d‘être for its creation: The central purpose at that time was to promote peace, security, and development worldwide – in short, addressing highly complex geopolitical issues. We know now that there are many other matters that must be given priority for the global agenda, ones which were not identified at the time – like climate change and sustainability.

From 51 original members in 1945 to 193 member states now, with this diversity has come an exponential expansion of backgrounds, beliefs, and sensitivities, crossing cultural boundaries, and posing major challenges because what may be humorous in one culture may not be perceived as such in another.

Despite apparent differences, however, there are underlying similarities in humor across cultures and religions.

One commonality is that humor is often a coping mechanism during difficult or sensitive situations. It is a means to alleviate tension, express dissent, and promote unity among different groups.

Moreover, cultural satire and self-mockery are found in almost all humor traditions across the world, indicating a shared tendency to find amusement in observing and commenting on cultural idiosyncrasies.

Below are a few examples of cultural humor similarities and differences among some major groups:

In Asia

Asian cultures often emphasize indirect and subtle forms of humor that rely on references, wordplay, and situational irony.

For instance, in Japan, puns and clever wordplay called “oyaji gags” are frequently seen in comedic performances. Context and timing play crucial roles in understanding the humor, and they usually use two stand-up comedians with a complementary role:

Similarly, in China, “quick-wittedness” by comedians may be conveyed through clever metaphors and idioms. Wielding “depressing irony” is something that’s already considered sort of funny in Western cultures, especially by younger generations.

However, China and many East Asian cultures like Japan and Korea take it to a whole other level. Furthermore, self-deprecating humor is commonly used in Asian cultures to lighten the atmosphere and maintain social harmony.

In Africa

A strong element of storytelling, with an emphasis on proverbs, jokes, and satire characterizes African humor. It often reflects the rich cultural diversity of the continent and incorporates social, political, and moral commentary.

African comedians use humor as a means of expression and challenge societal norms, while also fostering unity and resilience in the face of adversity.

For example, Nigerian comedian Basketmouth uses humor to address social issues such as corruption and poverty in his stand-up routines. Another example is Ugandan comedian Anne Kansiime, who uses humor to challenge gender stereotypes and traditional gender roles in her comedy sketches.

In the West: Europe and North America

Europe: With a wide and diverse array of humor styles, there is no space here to go over them all. But there are some major differences. British humor is renowned for its dry wit, sarcasm, and wordplay, which may require a strong understanding of English culture and history.  By contrast, in some Continental countries, there is more reliance on slapstick, physical humor, and exaggeration.

However, others, such as Germany have a strong tradition of tackling serious subjects ironically or satirically, but also with a light brush, as illustrated in a listing of traditional German humor in DW.com.

North America: Multi-faceted and multi-media humor is characteristic here – largely the result of melting pot cultures allowing for the blending of different comedic styles. As a result, it is difficult to pinpoint a single distinctive American humor style.

Undoubtedly, self-deprecating stand-up comedy, late-night talk shows, and sitcoms, greatly shape American humor that is often cross-fertilized by Asian and other BIPOC humor

Benefits from taking the “light” side in serious matters

While there are legitimate reasons not to integrate humor in a major way, inclusion in serious discourse has some worthy advantages. These are touched upon “lightly” below:

Promote Understanding: Humor has the remarkable ability to bridge divides, connecting people across cultural, linguistic, and political boundaries. Acknowledging and embracing it could foster understanding and empathy, facilitating more productive dialogue among member states.

Disarm Tensions: In the midst of tense diplomatic negotiations and conflicts, humor can be a tool to disarm hostility, defuse tension, and open avenues for constructive dialogue. Appropriately and carefully employed, it can create a more comfortable and conducive environment for negotiation and compromise.

Pete Souza

More Effective Communication: Humor can make complex issues more accessible to a broader audience. Messages can be more engagingly communicated, and objectives more commonly understood in a relatable manner, ensuring the attention and participation of diverse stakeholders, including the general public. This was the case during the worst days of the COVID pandemic when it helped reduce tension and depression for individuals and between people as well as health professionals and care providers.

The Punch Line: Humor is a profound and nuanced aspect of the human condition that remains largely unexplored within the United Nations. It has the potential to bridge divides, promote understanding, disarm tensions, and enhance communication and engagement.

Think of it, Putin has never been known for any ability for humor – maybe that’s what’s wrong with autocrats: A total inability to laugh and empathize. As a result, what they do is start wars that they have no idea how to end.

The world is interconnected at community and highest leadership levels: The United Nations needs to consider how it can better harness its potential to be more inclusive and impactful.

Expanding the audience, and introducing some measure of levity, would be well worth the effort and investment.

First published in Impakter. You can read the article here.


Written in collaboration with Senior Editor and Columnist Claude Forthomme who fully shares in the belief that humor should be given a larger role in international relations and brought many examples and visuals in support of the argument.


About the Author

Richard Seifman

Richard Seifman is a UNA/NCA Board Member, former World Bank Senior Health Advisor and U.S. Senior Foreign Service Officer, and Honorary Diplomate of the American Veterinary Epidemiology Society (AVES). He is a Senior Columnist at Impakter.


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