Translating humour

A funny thing happened on the way to the office…

I was in Sydney two weeks ago, conducting job interviews at our Pitt St office.  As I walked in on the Friday morning, I couldn’t help noticing the woman just ahead of me.  Calf-length black boots, tight jeans, tight black top, long, straight black hair.    She was walking toward the same lift bank that I was heading for, and two other guys were going the same way.

A lift opened, and the four of us walked in.  So far as I could tell, we were all mutual strangers.  The lift started up on its express run to level 22.

One of the other guys turned to the woman and asked cheekily, “Where can I get a pair of boots like that?”

The answer came back as quick as a flash, “You could get some in Oxford St.”  (Short, silent pause.)  “Maybe with some stiletto heels?”  (Another pause.)  “While you’re there, why not get some glitter as well?”

With no further conversation, the woman got out at level 22.  As we continued on our way, the slightly embarrassed guy turned to the two of us and said, “I think I came out of that alright.”

Before I got out at level 24, I just had time to reply, “Mate, it wasn’t even a draw!”

You can probably get the general idea of the implications of this conversation, but for anyone who knows Sydney, you would pick it up straight away.  Oxford St is the heart of the Sydney gay community – or at least its major shopping centre.

There are many jokes that are highly context-dependent.  One famous one in Melbourne was some years ago.  A sign outside a church in the suburb of Hawthorn asked, “What would you do if Jesus Christ came to Hawthorn?”  A clever graffiti artist added the reply, “Move Peter Hudson to centre half-forward!”

To understand this, you need to know:

  • Peter Hudson was a famous Australian Rules football player in the 1960s and 70s.
  • He played in the position of full-forward for the Hawthorn team, from which he kicked record numbers of goals for many years.
  • The position of centre half-forward is the next position back from full-forward.

To communicate effectively, you must know the context of your audience, and speak within this context, for your message to be heard with the intended meaning.  Alternatively, you need to clearly define your context.  However, by the time you explain the context, the joke has usually lost its humour…

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