Jokes can be an incredibly dense information-transfer mechanic. They’re wonderful as a tool to learn a whole lot about a new domain.

Around 15 years ago, I was working in an environment that had, for whatever reason, a lot of hockey fans. I wasn’t particularly interested and definitely didn’t have time to dedicate to learning, but I wanted to know “enough to be dangerous” – in other words, enough to chat with my coworkers. I struck gold one day when I overheard a joke:

“Do you know how to make an Ovechkin? It’s a white Russian but with no cup.” [Cue sound of laughter.]

Now, I said I don’t know anything about hockey, but I know a good joke when I hear one, especially by the reactions. Without having to know anything else, there were many facts I suddenly knew:

  1. Ovechkin is a hockey player, and he’s obviously Russian in origin.
  2. He hasn’t won a Stanley Cup. (I actually knew what that was!)
  3. The fact that he hasn’t won a cup is somehow weird – or else there wouldn’t be a joke worth telling.
  4. The fact that people get the joke means that Ovechkin is probably an above-average player both in terms of ability and in terms of how well-known he is.
  5. Therefore, he probably deserves a Stanley Cup, but has been held back for some other reason.

Those all turned out to be true – and that’s a LOT of information to transmit to someone with very little foundational knowledge via a single line!

(Incidentally, in 2018 the Washington Capitals did win the Stanley Cup, so finally that joke no longer works – go Ovechkin!)

The jokes of a culture carry a lot of information. Another example: when I was visiting Italy, I was given a tour of an absolutely beautiful scenic town by a wonderfully friendly local. As we took in a particularly lovely view from an overlook, he apologizes for the single factory that could be seen – in his mind, it marred the view somewhat. As someone who grew up around dozens of factories, it didn’t phase me in the slightest, but I was curious and asked what was made there. He said “concrete.”

Did you just laugh? If you did, I can tell you your national origin. If you’re wondering why on Earth anyone would have laughed just then, I can tell you that you’re certainly not Italian-American and from the Northeast.

It’s a deep stereotype both about and among Italian-Americans that they’re all stonemasons and work with concrete. Every Italian in New Jersey, New York, etc. has some uncle that made concrete steps or something like that. So my fellow Italian-Americans thought the story of me finding the one factory in rural Italy and it being one that made concrete was hilarious.

But if you didn’t know that, you could guess. If you heard me and all my cousins laugh at that story, you could gather it up.

And the thing is, every culture has these. Not just ethnic and regional cultures, but workplace cultures, industries, fandoms, etc. They all have their “in-jokes.” Jokes require a lot of shared information to be funny, so if you don’t think a joke is funny, chances are good that you don’t have the shared foundational knowledge. But if you’re trying to get it, jokes are a heck of a way to pick up clues.

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