Workshop examines nuances of American humor

After writing a research paper last semester on the differences between American and international students, senior Dena Spanos said she began to notice both cultural and physical separations between the two groups on campus. “It seemed like the international students kept to themselves, and I wanted to find out if there was a cultural reason this happens,” Spanos said. “I found that it’s a cultural barrier – that the international kids do all flock together because even though most of them don’t speak the same language, they sort of bond over that ‘differentness.’”

Although Geneseo is a fairly diverse school, Spanos said that the student body has a tendency to group off by commonalities. She explained that while this is natural, it could pose problems for international students who are left out for cultural reasons.

Through her research, Spanos found that one of the biggest factors for this divide is the use of separate freshmen orientations for international and American students.

“Right off the bat, we separate them off,” Spanos said. “I think we could bridge that gap right away if we could just create a chance for international students to talk to American students at orientation.”

After writing the paper, Spanos’ interest in this problem led her to an internship with the International Student Services office, a department that she says suffers from a lack of support and way too small.

“I think it’s easy for people to just forget we have international students on campus – students who may need support in areas other than just academics,” Spanos said. “There are just certain things in our culture, some that we don’t even realize that we do, that can confuse international students who don’t understand or are put off by it.”

According to Spanos, one of those things is humor, which lead her to create a workshop on April 5 focused on the different facets of American humor.

“It’s interesting because comedy and humor is a mix between culture and language,” she said. “For example, a professor might make a joke in class and suddenly everyone’s hysterical, but the international kids are completely confused by why that was so funny – even if their English is fine.”

Spanos also explained that it’s not just American humor that poses this problem, but that all humor is very culturally specific – something she said language majors or people who have studied abroad will understand.

“That give-and-take is why I wanted to do the workshop,” she said. “All of my events are discussion-based, so hopefully everyone, American and international, can learn from each other.”

Spanos has also participated in the “speech buddies” course and has set up an pen-pal program for accepted international students – all of which she said she hopes will continue to grow and reach out to students after she leaves.

“The cultural exchanges I’ve seen so far have been awesome, and as a senior, it’s kind of disappointing to leave after seeing things go so well,” Spanos said. “My hope is that because of our success so far, this title will be passed down and the internship will remain here as a permanent program in the future.”