We’ve been lectured for so long that differences should not separate us. It’s hammered into us that we should be less tribal. But try as we might, differences most definitely separate us.
We’re heading into summer, so this should be noted: Swimming suits separate us; at least, American men from those from just about any other nation.
Ever been poolside or on a beach in Florida with a bunch of French Canadians or Europeans? I rest my case.
I don’t care how much the United States has changed in the past 75 years, American men of all types — black, white, gay, straight, fat and skinny — almost always favor “big” swimming suits, with lots of room to maneuver, if you know what I mean.
Men from Great Britain, Australia and those Canadians who are not of French extraction also tend to favor the big suits, although not as much as Americans.
But men from Europe, Asia, Russia, South America, French Canadians ... well, they often go for the Speedos.
It’s as if when King John of England signed the Magna Carta, there was a clause buried deep within the document that said forever hence all men of the kingdom, and any colonies thereof, would wear big swimwear, in perpetuity.
American women and those from other nations don’t diverge in swimwear. Pretty much anything goes, from the modest to the opposite, regardless of shape, weight or pulchritude.
But I can tell you that this is the reaction of Americans, both men and women, to the sight of a man strutting poolside wearing a Speedo:
“Oh my gosh, it’s a foreigner. Look at his gut!”
Then we all laugh.
Look up a website called “Used Wigs” and key in the word “Speedo.” Out will flop out about two dozen American slang expressions that I can’t print in this column for that type of swimwear, each funnier than the next.
Oh, wait, men from India tend not to wear Speedos, either. Indians, men and women, are modest in their swimwear, actually in all of their clothing, even as depicted in their otherwise sizzling Bollywood movies. That, of course, is a generalization. But it’s true.
Another thing that always struck me as a big separator among cultures is humor. What makes us laugh? Why do we have so many funny slang expressions for a Speedo, when they don’t exist in other cultures?
You, as an American, may have laughed at what I wrote above (OK, maybe not), but someone from another culture may have simply been confused or wondered what is so funny to Americans about a Speedo.
I’ve watched groups of Asians, Indians, Eastern Europeans, even Brits and Irish, and often noticed them howling with laughter when they’re together.
What is making them laugh so hard? Maybe us.
Now, this is politically incorrect, but funny nonetheless. Americans often find that someone not from India imitating an Indian accent is funny.
Why is that? Do Indians laugh when one of them imitates an American accent?
A couple of years ago the long-running “The Simpsons” caught flak for its popular Apu character, the owner of the convenience store. Critics charged it negatively stereotyped Indians. The current status of that character is unclear.
Actually, politically incorrect humor is often pretty funny, despite the pressure to stifle it. Trying to squash politically incorrect humor is sort of like a whack-a-mole game: as soon as somebody deems something inappropriate for a laugh, another something new pops up.
In the former Soviet Union, any derogatory comments about the government could land you in real trouble. What sprung up over the years was a deep, underground black humor about the communist way of life. For example:
A man walks into a shop. He says to the clerk: “You don’t have any meat?” The clerk says: “No, here we don’t have any fish. The shop that doesn’t have any meat is across the street.” Or;
An American dog, a Polish dog and a Soviet dog sit together. The American dog says “In my country if you bark long enough, you will be heard and given some meat.” The Polish dog replies “What is ‘meat’?” and the Soviet dog says “What is ‘bark.’?”
OK, maybe not as funny as you’d like, but I guess if you’d survived Stalin’s gulags, those might be knee-slappers.
When someone sanctions something, people have a way of expressing themselves in other ways. Humor is a way to express a lot of different feelings.
Sigmund Freud, that amazing cutup, when he wasn’t telling men that they secretly yearned to seduce their mothers, argued for what was called his “relief theory” of humor, the concept that humor is a way for people to release psychological tension, overcome their inhibitions, and reveal their suppressed fears and desires.
Well, that’s one explanation. Another is that people just like to laugh, which Freud rival Carl Jung said in one of his stand-up acts.
Now, if politically incorrect humor is underground, that means it’s also subversive, undercutting the politically correct world. And I’m wondering what constitutes public humor in the politically correct world?
My answer is there cannot be true humor in an environment when everything is suspect of being politically incorrect. Jerry Seinfield, who knows a thing or two about comedy, says it’s very difficult for stand-up comics to book gigs on college campuses now because everything is off limits, likely to melt the snowflakes.
I think what’s happened is that humor, really funny stuff, isn’t heard much in public anymore. What’s left is sort of a thin gruel that might, at its best, just raise a smile.
Where the good stuff is heard now is in our living rooms, away from prying ears and the censors.
Like in the old Soviet Union.
Want a laugh? Imagine Freud, in a Speedo, smoking a cigar, lounging on the leather sofa in his office on a hot evening in Vienna.
Think Austrians would find that funny?