accused of stooping low for laughs

November 21st, 2007

It was a Friday night. A bunch of us were sitting around a table in a bar drinking beer. Two guys, two women, and myself. The conversation was passing through a quiet period and we were talking about beer or buying beer, something like that. Alluding to how the beer isn't all that cheap. That's when I decided to shoot in with a joke: Well when your glass is starting to empty you could always go to the bathroom for a refill. It will be a little diluted, but hey. [correct for loss of precision in translation]

It wasn't very funny, but hey who can deliver all zingers? Some jokes are mediocre, you either tell them anyway or say nothing.

One of the women smiled, the other one didn't look up from her cell phone, probably didn't even hear it. Just about right. But the guys had a totally different reaction. One stared at me as if in disbelief. The other made a derogatory comment about how classless jokes are part of modern culture.

I was incredulous at the criticism. I had no idea what he meant. I asked the woman who had smiled at it, she didn't get it either. It wasn't until the next day it dawned on me.

What I meant was obviously that if you're running out of beer, you can go to the bathroom, where there is a sink, and fill up your glass with tap water. It would then be diluted, the remaining amount of beer in the glass would mix with the water. This was a natural instinct for me, going back to when we were kids and drank tea, but the tea was hot, so we would fill up half the glass with hot water and the rest with tap water to get the right temperature. The two guys had a different interpretation of the joke. I can't bring myself to spill it out for you, but I think you'll get it soon enough. It was indeed classless.

When I realized the alternative interpretation I was insulted. I have never stooped that low to get a laugh and people who do this.. well let's just say they're "not my kind of people".

So why does this happen? It has to do with cultural background. The same picture shown to people in different parts of the world can trigger very different interpretations based on what kind of world they live in. And we understand why this is so. Just like we interpret or "understand" visual images by the fact that our brain compares them with all kinds of things we have seen in the past, searching for a match, we associate everything we perceive sensually, or intellectually, with things we already know.

So when you're misinterpreted, and someone accuses you of expressing something classless, who is really the embarrassed party?

Jon of recalls how a benign hand gesture he helped spread was discovered to be very similar to an obscene hand gesture, well known in some circles. His rationale is:

If someone does know about the obscene version, then whose fault is it really?

I think making this sort of accusation says two things about you.

  1. The fact that your mind connected you with the obscene alternative, and you didn't discard this and think there must be some other meaning I'm not getting reveals that you are well familiar with expressions of this nature. Whether it is the case that you immediately found the obscene version and stopped thinking about it, or you found both and decided on the obscene version, well neither detracts from the fact that you calculated the obscene version a more probable choice, which says something about what kind of statements are natural "in your world".
  2. The fact that you concluded I had made the obscene statement, taking into account that I have never told jokes like that in your presence (or for that matter at any other time) says something about what you think I'm capable of. It also shows a not so kind hearted willingness to lump me in with a group I don't exactly belong to. No benefit of the doubt given here.

But now in the wider context, what can be said about jokes like this? The woman who had smiled at the joke obviously got the intended message. So telling it to her was harmless. As far as the two guys are concerned, they have themselves to blame for associating what was said with what apparently they are used to hearing. And unintentionally also revealed something about themselves we wouldn't otherwise have known.

There is a choice to make here. Anything you say could potentially be misinterpreted. Sometimes you are aware of this, knowing what kind of material passes for humor. So you can censor yourself and rephrase everything you want to say so that the meaning cannot be twisted. But it's not exactly the most satisfying thing to be unable to express thought directly.

In the alternate case, you say what you wanted to say, and part of your audience may appreciate it, while you give the pathetic people what they want. He said balls hahahahaha *insert a 30 minute veritable battle of wits as your audience tells every joke about balls they can think of as you patiently wait for them to get it over with*. Of course, as a last resort you can shun the bad company. But then, of course, you're not socializing anymore, you outcast you.

However, it's really up to you as a receiver to make the judgment. Personally I like to give people the benefit of the doubt even when I'm fairly sure they meant to be classless. So I don't laugh, I offer an alternative interpretation. At this point you have two choices. You can either admit defeat and save face, or you can persist. Most people persist, and sort of shyly confirm their intentions by rephrasing the joke. Shyly because they hoped the first version would be clear enough without having said too much. But then when they've restated it and I still don't laugh, check mate. No coming back from the fact that you just told an unfunny, classless joke. But hey, I gave you the chance to recover.

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1 Responses to "accused of stooping low for laughs"

  1. Graham says:

    Funny that you posted about this not one day after I was having exactly the same discussion with some friends. It all started when we were all together late one night after a ridiculously busy day. One of my friends decided to go home early, and to illustrate how tired he was, he absent-mindedly used the following expression: "I'm gonna go home and have a stroke".

    Needless to say, the rest of us sat there with varying degrees of disbelief/shock/confusion. After a few seconds, my friend was accusing us all of having dirty minds. I guess it was a little different to your situation, since we didn't instantly condemn him for sharing too many details about his personal life.

    Strangely enough, in a completely unrelated discussion a few days later, the following picture was mentioned: