The results of a study by National Taiwan Normal University researchers announced on Wednesday found that Taiwanese use humor infrequently and that certain humor types are linked to mental capacity and well-being.
The researchers argued that humor could be learned and that Taiwanese should learn to use more of the “right type.”
While humor is inextricably tied to culture — another finding of the researchers — this does not imply that Taiwanese lack the capacity for humor. It abounds in Taiwan, with examples found in advertising, popular media and social media.
However, it is most often inoffensive (politicians excepted). For example, in a popular TV ad for beverage company Cha Li Wang (茶裏王), a man starts a new job and is told that he looks young by his female boss, who asks him: “How old are you?” The man replies: “I’m not sure!” with the implication that the beverage company’s tea has “rejuvenated” him and made him feel younger.
Taiwanese politicians are prone to humor in public, particularly sarcasm, which the researchers said was linked to “inferior mental capacity.” Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), who has claimed to have Asperger’s syndrome, has apologized for his often controversial statements. Recently, Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) compared President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and her running mate in next month’s presidential election, former premier William Lai (賴清德), to characters from the Chinese classical novel Water Margin (水滸傳). The characters, Wu Dalang (武大郎) and his wife, Pan Jinlian (潘金蓮), are known for being unequal, despite “sharing a bed.”
However, not all Taiwanese politicians use offensive humor. On Sunday last week, Minister Without Portfolio Audrey Tang (唐鳳) responded to a German reporter who said that Taiwan was a “breakaway province” of China by saying that “the breakaway was in the Neolithic age, I believe.”
Her deflection of a contentious description of Taiwan by interpreting it as a reference to the submergence of a land bridge between China and Taiwan during the ice age was spontaneous and perfectly timed. It was also humorous without being offensive.
The researchers argued that “self-defeating humor [is] seen as less detrimental in Taiwan than in the West,” because in “Chinese culture’s privileging of humility and interpersonal harmony” this form of humor is “positively linked to empathy, emotional reflection and emotional regulation.”
An argument linking self-deprecation with self-reflection is perhaps feasible, but it is context-specific at best. Self-deprecation is a mainstay of stand-up comedy in the US, where many comedians attack obvious aspects of their own identity as a key element of their routines. It would be unrealistic to argue that every one of these comedians suffers from depression. An argument could even be made that the positive feedback of making others laugh helps a good number of these comedians embrace their identities.
A more feasible association could be made between the “Chinese culture’s privileging of humility and interpersonal harmony” and the lack of aggressive humor in Taiwan. Taiwanese equivalents of comedians like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Burr and Chris Rock probably do not exist because it would be less socially acceptable to openly criticize groups or individuals in Taiwan.
There is also a different history of the struggle for emancipation in Taiwan than there was for minority groups in the US. That history in the US lends itself to unique comedy brands that thrive there.
Humor is alive and well in Taiwan, but if there is an area where more research is needed, perhaps it is in the use of humor in medical treatment. The researchers discussed humor and Asperger’s — perhaps other conditions could benefit from humor as well.
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