Interpreting a Laugh 

Huihua, a Chinese student, and Mary, an American student studying Chinese in China, were on their way to a bookstore. As they got to the bookstore, they saw a young man walking down a flight of stairs. In his hurry, he missed the last two steps, and fell on the ground. He struggled to get back to his feet while people around him laughed. Fortunately, he seemed to be O. K.

Mary was worried. She found Huihua smiling a little and was not comfortable about it. "Tell me, Huihua, how could people laugh when someone fell like that? Do they care at all? Shouldn't they go up and ask the young man whether he was hurt?"

Huihua said, "they knew he wasn't hurt too much."

"But I still don't understand. A fall is a fall. In my culture, people would do anything but laugh!"

Chinese perspective

This is another example in which the Chinese and the Westerner interpret a smile differently. As mentioned in the last case, Chinese people resort to laugh or smile when they feel embarrassed. Very often, the person caught in the embarrassing situation would also laugh or make a joke, to ease the embarrassment. However, if someone gets hurt seriously, it will not be a laughing matter any more. People will help him/her instead.

North American perspective

A Westerner would interpret laughter in such a setting as a sign of either insensitivity or, worse, pleasure that the person falling had hurt himself/herself because that person was disliked. A Westerner's response would have been to rush over, assist the person up, and to inquire about any injury by saying something like, "Are you okay?" If a Westerner fell, they, like a Chinese person, might attempt to make a joke out of the incident if they were not hurt. If two close friends are walking together, and one trips but clearly isn't hurt, a common joke is to say "Have a nice trip"— a pun based on two very different meanings of "trip": one meaning a vacation, the other meaning "to stumble". However, this joke would be made only between two people who knew each other well.