Saudis’ psychology of humor
This is not funny ... is she out of her mind? This was the reaction most of Saudis expressed in a response to Chelsea Handler who made fun of the idea of sending SMS messages to the male guardian of any Saudi female leaving the country.
In the clip, using an expletive, Miss Handler unequivocally attacked Saudi men who, she assumed, are obsessed with knowing every step ‘their’ women are taking. A lot of Saudi males took offense at the attack, and surprisingly, so did a lot of Saudi women. The matter seemed got serious and found its way to the media. Columns started to appear counter attacking Miss Handler. One writer took it personally and attempted to analyze Miss Handler’s love life to discover the real motivator behind her attack on Saudi men!
Given the huge cultural differences between American and Saudi societies, we could embark on a long journey of debates on whether her crude jokes were acceptable or totally out of order. But at the same time, one cannot help but wonder if a crude witticism deserves such a huge reaction. Or let’s put it this way; Do Saudis have a sense of humor? Humor is one of the most complex psychological traits that human beings have. How we do perceive it, analyze it, and respond to it, is still under study by many fields like psychology, neurology, sociology, and genetics.
A study named ‘The First Joke: Exploring the Evolutionary Origins of Humor’ published in 2006 says “The ability to generate and perceive humor is a biological process — a cognitive phenotypic trait — almost certainly dependent on a corresponding genetically based neurological substrate.” This notion of relating humor to genetics could explain why we perceive people of certain nationalities as being funny and approachable while others are very serious, if not grumpy, most of the time. For example, have you ever met an Egyptian who is out of jokes?
But genetics cannot describe everything, and according to the same study, there are many other aspects like language, theory of mind, symbolism, abstract thinking, and social perception that play a role in creating the sense of humor of any individual.
Luckily though, humor is a universal phenomenon. It has existed in virtually all cultures known to man. That makes it a very unique trait of man beside his basic needs throughout his history of existence.
So what really causes humor or leads to it? Most theories depicts that humor is built around three factors: incongruous conceptualization, repressed aggressive or sexual desires, and superiority mindsets. Given that humor is so complicated, these factors are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
In the layman terms, we make jokes to explain, to rethink a situation of paradox, of discrepancy, and we make jokes to speak about taboos that are usually related to sex or aggression. We also make jokes to feel good about ourselves, and to verify that we are better than the others.
Interestingly, the joke of Miss Handler had the all three factors. First, her joke tackles the discrepancy she sees between women’s right to freedom and monitoring their movement through SMS messages. Secondly, from her point of view she attacks the dominance and gender superiority of Saudi males over females. Finally, she was somehow advocating the superiority of her cultural values over those she was joking about.
Now back to Saudis and their sense of humor. We have a lot of associations in our culture between humor and time wasting, between laughter and loss of prestige and even dignity. Not only that, but we tend to close our eyes when it comes to our paradoxes, we do not like to bring them to the light of discussions and change. That is why making fun of them hurts and usually strikes a chord with us. We are very sensitive to criticism, let alone jokes!
It is interesting to notice that even society’s appreciation of humor has so many deeper roots of accepting and respecting others’ views and values.
It impossible for any nation to live in a cocoon anymore, it is globalization where you have to engage with others to discuss, to change, to think and rethink, even when it comes to jokes.