Tag Archives: anti-humor

“What should I say, if saying nothing would be better?” – Farsi Proverb

Description of Informant

MV (79) is a retired engineer, chess master, and violinist from Tehran, Iran. At 19, he came to America to study at Ohio Northern and remained in the states for his adult life (Missouri and California). While in Iran, he lived a very traditional life under religious parents. He has embedded many of the traditional views of his youth into his personal values

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Phrase

Original Text: چه گويم كه ناگفتنم بهتره؟

Phonetic: Cheh gooyam keh nah gōftanam behtareh?

Transliteration: What can I say that it is better not to say?
Free Translation: What should I say, if saying nothing would be better?

Context of Use

The phrase is a playfully solemn response to “How are you?” It works to inform the asker that the speaker is sad/down, but also that they aren’t interested in discussing their emotions with the present party. It is most often used between friends or peers. 

It is also a proverb, serving a similar function to the English “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Unlike the English phrase, it is not directed outward, and instead focuses on the speaker. I.E. If I don’t have anything positive to say, why should I speak?

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Context of Interview

The informant, MV, sits on a loveseat, feet planted on a brightly colored Persian rug. He is opposite the collector, BK, his grandson. Text spoken in Farsi is translated and italicized. Instances of the phrase have been replaced by [the phrase].

Interview

MV: *muttering* [the phrase]… One of the things, for instance, we used to say… somebody says “How are you, what are you doing?”, you say [the phrase]. Um… meaning that, for instance, you see a friend who asks “How are you doing?” and if you don’t feel like good you say [the phrase]. What should I say if—  if I keep quiet—  would be much better?

BK: Who would you say this to? If your boss asked “How are you?”— 

MV: No, it was when we were teenagers. Just among friends. Not with parents.

BK: Was this something funny or something serious?

MV: Nah we just— we’d just say he doesn’t feel good but he doesn’t wanna talk about it. Then they know not to pressure you.

Collector’s Reflection

In Iran during the 1940s and 1950s, when MV was a teenager, discussion of emotions between men, even peers, was extremely taboo. Men were not encouraged to express themselves, and were expected to remain stoic. The phrase was invented as a tool to allow young men to inform their peers of their emotional state, while remaining distant. 

MV is an interesting man. He embodied traditional Iranian masculinity well into his 60s: stoic, serious, commanding respect. All this despite living in America since his 20s. Admittedly, American masculinity standards don’t exactly scream “vulnerability” either. However, when MV retired at the beginning of his 70s, everything changed. He was able to loosen up, smile, joke, we even saw him cry. This once formal and scary man became a teddy bear. One couldn’t imagine him using the phrase now, as he would much rather discuss his emotions. One could read this as a sign of aging, but I consider it to be a sign of the times as well. MV noted that his Iranian friends have all become more comfortable with vulnerability in recent years as it has become more socially acceptable. As the definition of masculinity changes worldwide, perhaps this use of phrase will fade to memory; perhaps not, time will tell.

The phrase will continue to find relevance as a proverb, though it is less regularly used as such.

A Variation of the “Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?” Joke

Main Text:

Collector: “Are there any jokes or riddles that you think are funny that you like to tell at school”

SM: “OO YEAH, I have one! And I think it is realllyyy funny!”

Collector: “Okay, what is it?”

SM: ” Why did the chicken cross the road?”

Collector: “Hmm, I’m not really sure. Why?”

SM: ” To get to the other SLIDE!”

Context:

The informant is a 6 year old girl who attends a public elementary school. I asked her to explain to me as best as she could the reasons why she would tell this joke to her friends. Other than saying it was funny, she said that they like to tell each other jokes at recess when they have nothing else to do and when they are bored. I also asked her where she heard this joke from and she said she learned it from another person in her class when they were playing outside.

Analysis:

In addition to this job being “funny” there are other explanations to why the timeless “Why did the chicken cross the road” jokes continued and still continue to be passed along through all of these years. To use a historical explanation, this joke/question first appeared in The Knickerbocker, a New York City magazine. The issue mentioned it as an example of a quip that might seem like a joke but is in fact a straightforward and unfunny solution. This joke was basically an example of anti humor and not too long after it was published, the line was modified and adapted to become an actual joke format, employing various puns and variations because everyone had already known the original answer to it. Because this joke plays off of the anti-humor aspect where the teller tells something that is not funny which the audience expect to be funny which creates a sense of ironic comedic value, it is important to analyze why people like to use anti-humor for their jokes and riddles in order to understand why this joke keeps being modified and told. More often than not, young children are the ones making variations to this “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke so I am going to analyze the culture of children and why they tend to use anti humor.

 Taking a psychological perspective, young children around the age where they are in preschool and shortly after learn the rhythms and formats of jokes and riddles without really understanding how  humor works, resulting in them saying nonsense like it is a joke, but it not really being a joke.
Adding on to this, kids are very reward-based meaning that they begin to realize that when people tell jokes, they joke teller is rewarded with attention and acceptance. So when these young kids tell these kids of anti-humor jokes and riddles that make no sense, they usually get a lot of positive reactions because it is “adorable” even if it is nonsensical (which also partly adds to the adorableness). This positive reaction the is fed to these young children then teaches and encourages them that it is okay to tell more jokes like these, leading to multiple forms and variations of nonsensical jokes, like we see in this collection. Another thing to understand about children who tell jokes is that kids tend to tell unconventional or peculiar jokes because they have not yet understood what exactly a joke is composed of. What makes a joke is that a joke presents some question or situation and then resolves this question. In other words, kids have not grasped the structure of a joke and therefore continue to tell jokes that make no sense to the listener. Kids are also exposed whether it be through school or their families to many jokes that they probably do not understand, so it makes sense that they think it is okay to put random things together into a joke because that is what they believe that people are doing with the jokes that they do not get.
This misunderstanding of the structure of a jokes as well as the attention they receive when they tell a bad joke accidentally leads to kids forming jokes that resemble more of a complex form of humor, that being the anti-joke. In different words, it is in the psychology and culture of kids to form anti-humor jokes and share them amongst each other and their families. For these reasons, this anti-humor then continues to be passed along from playground to home and because it is rooted in the psychology and social culture of the child I believe it will continue to be passed along for years to come.