The longer I live in Switzerland, the more I start to notice the deeper, more subtle differences in cultural norms in my adopted home. Recent migrators may comment on the funny German, or how clean the streets are, or about how we can’t throw away our recycling on Sundays, but that’s kind of old hat within a couple months. They are surface differences you can get past quickly. The deeper things are harder to write or talk about and sometimes I just avoid them entirely- they are easy to get wrong or to describe without causing offense.
Nevertheless, I want to tackle my thoughts on one of those topics this fine Friday afternoon as I take a break from my literature review. The Swiss sense of humor. How can one describe a sense of humor? Yet it is one of the most fundamental things our culture imparts to us, the more I think about it. Even between cultures with a shared language, like British and American, there are significant differences. Sure, there’s some overlap, but our slapstick sense of physical humor, especially in Hollywood movies, has no parallel across the pond. Mister Bean may make us laugh, but it is still a fundamentally foreign sense of humor for most Americans, in my very generalized experience.
So how do the Swiss differ? It is a little difficult to describe, but I will do my best (remembering always that I see the world through an American lens, and that a population of course varies widely). Firstly, it can be pretty dark. Lots of gallows humor, the kind that Americans keep well hidden away from the workplace, for example. Second, it is very sarcastic in an outward focused way (as opposed to British humor, which I think is often very ironic, but almost always self-directed). This is the part of Swiss humor I find the most difficult to negotiate- such jokes can often feel very confrontational to my ears, and if the recipient “doesn’t get the joke,” I often find myself worrying about offense being taken.
My first encounter with this brand of humor began, really, with my Swiss ex Michel while I was still in the US. I always thought it was particular to him that occasionally I just didn’t get the joke, but I do remember one time in particular that I had an aha moment. His family had come to visit him in NYC and they saw some terrible musical that they all hated. If this were my family, we would have probably laughed a bit about it and let the topic drop, regretting the waste of money. For his family, this became a HUGE laugh and something they talked about even during subsequent get togethers. Seriously, they would sit around fondly talking about how terrible this musical was for ages and getting serious enjoyment out of describing exactly HOW and WHY and WHEN this musical was terrible. The complaining was a bonding experience and great source of hilarity!
Now that I have lived here a while I get it more. The Swiss do not like to boast like perhaps some of my American compatriots could be accused of. They like to complain. They have the number 1 or 2 on time train system in the world, but they are by far number 1 in complaints about timeliness. If you ask them about their holiday more times than not the first thing you will hear about are the bugs or the terrible food that one night. Sometimes I even find myself falling into this pattern, and remembering with amusement my childhood lessons that if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all. This could not be more opposite to Swiss values.
I have always secretly somewhat enjoyed dark humor, although I rarely engage in it myself, so I often find myself laughing (with some large, very un-entertained exceptions). The exception, though, is when I have a visitor from the US. We have a different culture and sometimes…jokes just don’t translate properly. And then dark jokes with strangers, in my opinion, are like unexploded land mines. It’s just not worth tripping through the fields at night. Luckily most Swiss reserve their spiciest jokes for their own language, from what I’ve noticed.
Alright, I’m ready to get torn apart by my Swiss readers, but unless you have some decisive contrary points I stand by my words. Warning ahead of time.
P.S. One thing- Chuck Norris jokes are apparently universal 🙂