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Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2000

When intercultural humor is no joke

Upon asking a group of Japanese young people, "What's the best way to impress a date?" I once received the following answers:

Girl: "Agree with everything he says. Make him think he's brilliant, even if he's a ninny."

Boy: "Lie. Feed her any line you can, but somehow convince her you're cool."

Girl: "Stare passionately into his eyes. Then, from time to time, sigh like a hot wind."

Other answers included such stand-bys as "just be yourself" and "wear the tightest dress you own."

Oddly enough, though, no one even mentioned my personal approach, the one I used to swear by back in my own dating days: Make 'em laugh. The way to a woman's heart, I always felt, was through her funny bone.

Of course, half of the handful of girls I went out with considered our entire date a joke. The other half perhaps were more inclined to describe it as a nightmare. One time I showed up at the door wearing a pair of Groucho Marx glasses. The girl didn't laugh, nor even smile, till I flipped them off. Then she shrieked.

Anyhow, in dating the Japanese girl who would eventually become my bride, I was at an immediate tactical disadvantage. Though competent in English, my future bride could still not catch American humor. She therefore took everything I said at face value.

"Uhmm," I would fret, searching for an icebreaker. "Did I tell you about my friend, the insomniac, dyslexic agnostic? He stayed up all night wondering if there's a dog."

To which she would respond: "Why? Did his dog run away? Is he hunting for it? Should we help him?"

"Uh . . . no. It's OK."

"But I saw a dog running free just yesterday! Maybe it's his!"

We would continue like this for an hour or so, on completely different planes, the only benefit being that not only did the ice get broken, it got pulverized.

One would think that after 20 years of marriage this witticism gap would have been breached. The truth is, though, it is still there even today. When it comes to humor, no matter what the language, my wife and I often sail straight past each other like blinking ships lost in opposite fogs.

It was only after several dates, in fact, that my wife even guessed that I might, on rare occasion, be joking. In reality, of course, I had yet to say anything serious at all.

Once she found this out, she determined to make an impression of her own and decided to laugh like a loon at every word I said -- an effective strategy that nevertheless was sooner or later doomed to fail.

"How was your day?" she asked me over the telephone.

"Not so good," I answered, the sad missive still in my hand. "I just got a letter saying my great aunt died -- while watching TV. One minute she was giggling at a sitcom and the next minute she was dead."

"HA! That's wild!"

"What's worse, my old uncle didn't even notice. He didn't think anything was wrong till she sat stone silent through the next two shows."

"HA! HA! Stop it! You're making my ribs hurt!"

So we had our first lesson in "black humor." Leaving my bride-to-be in a dither. When and when not to laugh!? A confusion that occurred even at the supreme moment of truth.

"So, uh . . . Will you marry me?"

Pause. A sideways glance. "Is this more black humor?"

"No! Definitely not!"

So she began to snicker and slap her thigh.

From her end, my wife likes to preface her own jibes with a warning.

"Tom, I am going to say something funny now. Get ready."

Yet, it always steams her when I don't laugh.

"But that was hilarious! I'm sure it was!"

"Nope. Look. Not even a grin."

Sometimes, when really frustrated, she will phone a Japanese friend and repeat the same joke, exhaling with relief when the friend chuckles back.

"See! It was funny! I told you!"

"And your friend laughs at everything, even a change in weather."

Helping mend our humor rift are our children, who understand both languages. When in doubt, my wife will peek at our boys. If they're smiling at what I've said, she rushes in with a giggle. If not, she will relax, rescued from American wit once more.

From my side, things are more complicated. Our boys afford little help in guiding me through Japanese jocularity -- they don't laugh at mom's lines either.

"But that was hilarious! I'm sure it was!"

"Sorry, Mom, but . . . no."

So -- again -- she dives off to phone her friend.

Still, 20 years of marriage have pretty well inured us to the mysterious tangles of each others' wit. Now my wife just assumes that whatever I am babbling about isn't worth taking seriously. And she insists that what she says is funny and laughs all by herself.

As for me, as an old married man I no longer worry about impressing girls. Just about writing clever newspaper columns.

Which my wife reads with eyes askance.

"Did all this funny stuff really happen? Or are you making it up?"

"Aarrgh!!" I cry, tearing at my hair and rolling my eyes. "I can't believe you don't know!"

"Oh, I'm just kidding!" she laughs.

Actually, though, the joke's on her.

So am I.

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