Funny? What’s funny?

Online dating may give us the ability to connect with people across the world, but it can also present barriers. One University of British Columbia’s (UBC) study found that understanding Canadian humour is one of the major obstacles immigrants face when using dating websites.

Siqi Xiao, an international UBC Masters sociology student, was primarily focused on studying how education level and immigrant status shape intimate relationships when she decided to view them through the lens of online dating. Her research led to some surprising results: that humour plays a pivotal role in the landscape of Canadian dating.

Online dating and the immigrant experience

Xiao decided that a digital platform was a great medium for her sociological research.

“In the past people tend to meet in school, in the workplace, through friends,” she says. “Studies have shown that traditional ways of meeting partners tend to facilitate similarity-based matching.”

Xiao hoped that by examining a modern platform she could determine if online dating, which offers the opportunity to transcend differences, would change or adhere to this previous research.

”We wanted to see if online dating could alleviate those barriers between visual, or cultural boundaries,” she explains. “Some scholars think online dating is the new way to meet people, you can meet people outside your geographic region, outside of your race and ethnicity who are totally different from you.”

So Xiao and her supervisor, UBC assistant professor Yue Qian, embarked on a study to explore these ideas. After recruiting and interviewing 63 Chinese immigrant and Canadian-born participants and asking about potential partner criteria and experiences, they found that humour presented a different type of cultural inequality.

“We wanted to know [participants’] experience of online dating, how they decide who to meet, what is their preference for their ideal partner, what is their past experience of romantic relationships. Humour was something unexpected that came out while I was doing interviews,” notes Xiao.

The cultural capital of humor

At face value, humor seems like a subjective taste, but according to Xiao it is much more complex than that. “Humour is inherently a social phenomenon; interactions and the ability to tell or appreciate jokes requires cultural and language experiences that many new immigrants do not have.”

Siqi Xiao, UBC Masters
sociology student. | Photo courtesy of UBC

“It requires a certain taste, but also requires a different way of thinking and a grasp of coded language. When you look at those components, they are not entirely individualized, our cultural experiences cultivate those ways of thinking,” she adds.

While 81 per cent of Canadian-born respondents chose humour as a screening criterion for dating, 81 per cent of the Chinese born participants did not. According to Xiao, this is the largest obstacle immigrants face when dating online.

“People that don’t have the shared experience or cultural knowledge, for example watching the same tv shows or growing up in the same kindergarten or high school, wouldn’t know why some jokes are funny, and in turn get left out.”

The findings show that humor is important in the initial stages of dating, but even when the relationship progressed to meeting online or in person, humor still mattered.

“Online dating gives that opportunity to screen candidates based on their sense of humour in addition to other things. It already makes an impact before they go offline or meet in person,” adds Xiao.

Transcending the boundaries

Xiao suggests a number of ways for Canadians to address the inaccessibility that humor has for potential partners: “Encouraging people in their workplace or dating situations when evaluating whether this person’s humour fits or not. Breaking down what you think you require for something to be funny and reflect if those things are shareable. Pausing and reflecting on what we are really asking gives us the opportunity to share our cultural learning in multicultural spaces, where we can exchange ideas and share different kinds of humour.”

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