“Humour is the first of the gifts to perish in a foreign tongue,” wrote Virginia Woolf.
But in a world where having “a good sense of humour” can improve your prospects of landing everything from a date to a job, are immigrants being penalized for not getting the joke?
Siqi Xiao, a UBC Master’s student in sociology, looked at this question through the lens of online dating. Together with her supervisor, Yue Qian, she interviewed Canadian-born and Chinese immigrants about their online dating choices and interactions to uncover the role that humour plays in mate selection.
Her findings? Humour matters a lot — especially for Canadians. Despite the fact that most Canadian-born respondents said they were open to dating people from different national and linguistic backgrounds, more than 80 per cent of them screened potential partners according to their sense of humour — including their ability to write amusing messages or engage in witty banter.
Xiao says these choices reinforce social boundaries and can have implications beyond the dating world. We spoke to her about her study.
How does selecting a partner based on humour reinforce social boundaries?
Humour is a complex construct and inherently social phenomenon. Being able to tell or appreciate a joke requires years of cultural learning, language proficiency, taste and ways of thinking. In sociology, we call this “cultural capital.” Selecting a partner based on humour is not only a personal choice, but a process of cultural matching that implicitly excludes online daters from different cultural or ethnic groups. This is important for us to reflect on, especially when we live in a multicultural country where we welcome, respect and celebrate diverse cultures.
What inspired you to research the relationship between humour and dating?
I have always been curious about how people choose whom to date. Traditional ways of meeting a partner — such as at school, in the workplace, or through family and friends — often lead to finding a partner with similar traits, such as, race/ethnicity and education. But online dating has dramatically expanded the pool of potential partners. I wanted to find out: does this change whom people choose to date?
How did you conduct the study?
We conducted 63 in-depth, face-to-face interviews with online daters in Vancouver — half of them Chinese immigrants and half of them Canadian-born from diverse ethnic backgrounds. We asked participants about their motivations, experiences and strategies for online dating and what they were looking for in a potential partner. We also asked questions about their interactions with prospective partners online and offline. Due to the scope of this study, we exclusively focused on online daters seeking different-sex relationships.
What were your findings?
Our preliminary findings suggest that online dating reinforces social boundaries between immigrants and Canadian-born people in explicit or implicit ways. Some people, in particular immigrants, have explicit preferences for dating within their own cultural background and use dating sites or apps that cater to a specific, locally-based population.
Canadian-born people are less likely to explicitly exclude the possibility of dating partners from other cultural backgrounds. However, they emphasize criteria that require cultural capital, such as being “funny,” “witty” or able to hold a good conversation. This could implicitly exclude immigrants, especially those who speak English as a second language, who are marginalized in society, or who don’t know Canadian culture as well.
Another key finding was the contrast in how different groups value humour in a potential partner. We found that 81 per cent of Canadian-born respondents considered humour a primary screening criterion for their ideal partner. For Chinese immigrant respondents, this was the opposite – 81 per cent didn’t mention humour at all. In this sense, humour creates social boundaries in modern romance.
We conclude that online dating seems to reinforce pre-existing group boundaries and social stratifications at the very early stages of partner searches.
What implications do these findings have for Canadians?
Research has shown that humour affects much more than romantic success; it can play a role in succeeding in the workplace, making friends — it even influences how students rate their instructors. So in the interest of inclusivity, it’s time for us to critically ask: for immigrants, especially, more marginalized immigrant groups, how many years does it take for them to get or crack a joke? If we want to embrace diversity on this multicultural land, we have to critically reflect on the cultural capital required for humour. Otherwise, we implicitly allow humour to divide people.
During the past few months, COVID-19 has revealed and exacerbated xenophobia in our society. Xenophobia can take in various and implicit forms in our daily life. If we want to embrace diversity on this multicultural land, we have to critically reflect on the implicit biases we hold when preferring someone who has an obvious “Canadian” sense of humour. Otherwise, we might allow “Canadian” sense of humour to divide people.
Xiao was one of five finalists in the 2019 Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Storytellers Challenge: a contest that calls on young researchers to demonstrate in three minutes or 300 words how SSHRC-funded research is making a difference in the lives of Canadians. Listen to her presentation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kG5MCtb3VUE