The European Journal of Humour Research

Vol 10, No 2 (2022)

The role of ‘familiarity’ in Mandarin Chinese speakers’ metapragmatic evaluations of Australian conversational humour

Wei-Lin Melody Chang,Valeria Sinkeviciute


Although research on humorous practices of Anglo-Australians has received much attention, the understanding of those practices by members of various multilingual communities in Australia has not been much studied. In this paper, we look at metapragmatic comments on concept familiarity in relation to conversational humour, particularly focusing on Mandarin Chinese speakers’ perceptions of conversational humour in Australian English. In order to explore what role ‘familiarity’ plays in (inter-)cultural conceptualisation of humour, we analyse interview data where speakers of Mandarin Chinese provide their metapragmatic comments on humorous exchanges among Australians. Drawing on approximately 8.2 hours of interview data elicited by a segment from the reality television gameshow Big Brother 2012, i.e., a teasing sequence between two acquainted persons, it is suggested that the concept of familiarity is the one most frequently alluded to in the theme of how participants ‘draw the boundary’ between intimates and acquaintances. From the analysis it emerged that Mandarin Chinese speakers’ evaluations of humorous exchanges in Australian English are driven by their culturally-informed perceptions that are conceptualised through various emic notions, e.g. guanxi (‘interpersonal relationship’), various labels for classifying different relational distance, and qiji (‘opportune moment’). The findings of this exploratory paper suggest that the role of ‘familiarity’ in relation to humour is crucial in the perception of appropriateness of humorous practices in interaction, especially across cultures.


Alberts, J.K., Kellar-Guenther, Y. & Corman S.R. (1996). ‘That’s not funny: Understanding recipients’ responses to teasing’. Western Journal of Communication 60 (4), pp. 337-357.

Bell, N.D. (2005). ‘Exploring L2 language play as an aid to SLL: A case study of humour in NS–NNS interaction’. Applied Linguistics 26 (2), pp. 192-218.

Boxer, D. & Cortés-Conde, F. (1997). ‘From bonding and biting: Conversational joking and identity display’. Journal of Pragmatics 27, pp. 275–295.

Chang, H.-C. & Holt, R. (1994). ‘A Chinese perspective on face as inter-relation concern’, in Ting-Toomey, S. (ed.) The Challenge of Facework, Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. 95-132.

Chang, W.M. (2016) Face and Face Practices in Chinese Interaction: A Study in Interactional Pragmatics. London: Equinox.

Chang, W.M. & Fukushima, S. (2017).’ “Your care and concern are my burden!”: Accounting for the emic concepts of ‘attentiveness’ and ‘empathy’ in interpersonal relationships among Taiwanese females’. East Asian Pragmatics 2 (1), pp. 1-23.

Chang, W. M & Haugh, M. (2011). ‘Strategic embarrassment and face threatening in business interactions’. Journal of Pragmatics 43 (12), pp. 2948-2963.

Chang, W. M & Haugh, M. (2020). ‘The metapragmatics of “teasing” in Taiwanese Chinese conversational humour’. The European Journal of Humour Research 8 (4), pp. 7-30.

Chefneux, G. (2015). ‘Humour at work’. Language and Dialogue 5 (3), pp. 381-407.

Cheng, W. (2003). ‘Humor in intercultural conversations’. Semiotica 146, pp. 287-306.

Culpeper, J. 2011. Impoliteness: Using Language to Cause Offence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Culpeper, J. & Haugh, M. (2014). Pragmatics and the English Language. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

Culpeper, J, Haugh, M. & Sinkeviciute, V. (2017). ‘(Im)politeness and mixed messages’, in Culpeper, J., Haugh, M. & Kádár, D.Z. (eds.), Palgrave Handbook of Linguistic (Im)Politeness, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 323-355.

Davies, C. E. (2003). ‘How English-learners joke with native speakers: An interactional sociolinguistic perspective on humor as collaborative discourse across cultures’. Journal of Pragmatics 35, pp.1361-1385.

De Fina, A. (2008). ‘Style and stylization in the construction of identities in a card-playing club’, in Auer, P. (ed.), Style and Social Identities: Alternative Approaches to Linguistic Heterogeneity, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 57-84.

Dynel, M. (2011). ‘Joker in the pack: Towards determining the status of humorous framing in conversations’, in Dynel, M. (ed.), The Pragmatics of Humour across Discourse Domains. Pragmatics and Beyond New Series, Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, pp. 217-241.

Fukushima, S. & Haugh, M.. (2014). ‘The role of emic understandings in theorizing im/politeness: The metapragmatics of attentiveness, empathy and anticipatory inference in Japanese and Chinese’. Journal of Pragmatics 74: 165-179.

Gabrenya, W.K. J., & Hwang, K.-K. (1996). ‘Chinese social interaction: harmony and hierarchy on the good earth’, in Bond, M. H. (eds.), Chinese Psychology, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 309-321.

Gao, G., Ting-Toomey, S. & Gudykunst, W. B. (1996). ‘Chinese communication processes’, in Bond, M. H. (ed.) Chinese Psychology, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 280-293.

Gardner, R. (1997). ‘The listener and minimal responses in conversational interaction’. Prospect 12(2), pp. 12-32.

Geyer, N. (2010). ‘Teasing and ambivalent face in Japanese multi-party discourse’. Journal of Pragmatics 42, pp. 2120-2130.

Glenn, P. (2003). Laughter in Interaction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goddard, C. (2009). ‘Not taking yourself too seriously in Australian English: Semantic explications, cultural scripts, corpus evidence.’ Intercultural Pragmatics 6 (1), pp. 29-53.

Goodwin, C. & Tang, C. S.-K. (1996). ‘Chinese personal relationships’, in Bond, M. H. (ed.) Chinese Psychology, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 294-308.

Habib, R., (2008). ‘Humor and disagreement: identity construction and cross-cultural enrichment’. Journal of Pragmatics 40, pp.1117–1145.

Haugh, M. (2010). ‘Jocular mockery, (dis)affiliation, and face’. Journal of Pragmatics 42 (8), pp. 2106-2119.

Haugh, M. (2011). ‘Humour, face and im/politeness in getting acquainted’, in Davies B.L., Haugh, M. & Merrison, A.J. (eds.), Situated Politeness, London and New York: Continuum, pp. 165-184.

Haugh, M. (2014). ‘Jocular mockery as interactional practice in everyday Anglo-Australian conversation’. Australian Journal of Linguistics 34 (1), pp. 76-99.

Haugh, M. (2017). ‘Teasing’, in Attardo, S. (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Language and Humor, New York: Routledge, pp. 204-218.

Haugh, M. (2015). Im/Politeness Implicatures. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

Haugh, M. & Bousfield, D. (2012). ‘Mock impoliteness in interactions amongst Australian and British speakers of English’. Journal of Pragmatics 44, pp. 1099-1114.

Haugh, M. & Pillet-Shore, D. (2018). ‘Getting to know you: Teasing as an invitation to intimacy in initial interactions’. Discourse Studies 20 (2), pp. 246-269.

Haugh, M. & Weinglass, L. (2018). ‘Divided by a common language? Jocular quips and (non-)affiliative responses in initial interactions among American and Australian speakers of English’. Journal of Politeness Research 15 (4), pp. 533-562.

Holmes, J. & Hay, J. (1997). ‘Humour as an ethnic boundary market in New Zealand interaction’. Journal of Intercultural Studies 18 (2), pp. 127–51.

Holmes, J. & Marra, M.. (2002). ‘Over the edge? Subversive humor between colleagues and friends’. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 15 (1), pp. 65-87.

Holt, E. (2013). ‘“There’s many a true word said in jest”: Seriousness and nonseriousness in interaction’, in Glenn, P. & Holt, E. (eds.), Studies of Laughter in Interaction, London, New Delhi, New York and Sydney: Bloomsbury, pp. 69-89.

Hubler, A. & Bublitz, W. (2007). ‘Introducing metapragmatics in use’, in Bublitz, W. & Hubler, A. (eds.), Metapragmatics in Use, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 1-26.

Jefferson, G. (2004). ‘Glossary of transcript symbols with an introduction’, in Lerner. G.H. (ed.), Conversation Analysis: Studies from the First Generation, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp.13-31.

Keltner, D., Young R.C., Heerey E.A., Oemig, C. & Monarch, N.D. (1998). ‘Teasing in hierarchical and intimate relations’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75 (5), pp. 1231-1247.

Kowalski, R. M. (2004). ‘Proneness to, perceptions of, and responses to teasing: The influence of both intrapersonal and interpersonal factors’. European Journal of Personality 18, pp. 331–349.

Liao, C-C. (2005). Jokes, Humor and Good Teachers. Taipei: Crane.

Lundquist, L. (2014). ‘Danish humor in cross-cultural professional settings: linguistic and social aspects’. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 27 (1), pp. 141–163.

Marra, M. & Holmes, J. (2007). ‘Humour across cultures: joking in the multicultural workplace’, in Kotthoff, H. & Spencer-Oatey, H. (eds.), Handbook of Intercultural Communication, Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 153-172.

Matsumoto, Y. (2014). ‘Collaborative co-construction of humorous interaction among ELF

speakers’. Journal of English as a Lingua Franca 3 (1), pp. 81-107.

Moalla, A. (2015). ‘Intercultural strategies to co-construct and interpret humor’. International Journal of Applied Linguistics 25 (3), 366-385.

MOE (2015) Ministry of Education Dictionary. Taipei: Ministry of Education.

Mullan, K. (2020). ‘Humour in French and Australian English initial interactions’. Journal of Pragmatics 169, pp. 86-99.

Myers-Scotton, C. (2006). Multiple Voices: An Introduction to Bilingualism. Cornwall: Blackwell Publishing.

Obana, Y. & Tomoda, T. (1994). ‘The sociological significance of “politeness” in English and Japanese languages. Report from a pilot study’. Japanese Studies Bulletin 14 (2), pp. 37-49.

Olivieri, K. M. (2003). A Semantic Analysis of Teasing-Related Speech Act Verbs in Australian English. BA Hons thesis. Armidale: University of New England.

Plester, B. A. & Sayers, J. (2007). ‘“Taking the piss”: Functions of banter in the IT industry’. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 20 (2), pp. 157-187.

Potter, J. & Hepburn, A. (2005). ‘Qualitative interviews in psychology: problems and possibilities’. Qualitative Research in Psychology 2, pp. 281-307.

Pullin Stark, P. (2009). ‘No joke–this is serious! Power, solidarity and humour in Business English as a Lingua Franca (BELF)’, in Mauranen, A. & Ranta, E. (eds.), English as a Lingua Franca: Studies and Findings, Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 152-177.

Pullin, P. (2017). ‘Humour in ELF interaction: A powerful, multifunctional resource in relational practice’, in Jenkins, J., Baker, W. & Dewey, M. (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of English as a Lingua Franca, New York: Routledge, pp. 333-344.

Rogerson-Revell, P. (2007). ‘Humour in business: a double-edged sword. A study of humour and style shifting in intercultural business meetings’. Journal of Pragmatics 39, pp. 4–28.

Schnurr, S. (2009). ‘Constructing leader identities through teasing at work’. Journal of Pragmatics 41, pp. 1125-1138.

Schnurr, S. & Chan, A. (2011). ‘When laughter is not enough. Responding to teasing and self-denigrating humour at work’. Journal of Pragmatics 43, pp. 20-35.

Scollon, R. & Scollon, S. W. (1991). ‘Topic confusion in English-Asian discourse’. World Englishes 10 (2), pp. 113-125.

Sinkeviciute, V. (2014). ‘“When a joke’s a joke and when it’s too much”: mateship as a key to interpreting jocular FTAs in Australian English’. Journal of Pragmatics 60, pp. 121-139.

Sinkeviciute, V. (2016). ‘“Everything he says to me it’s like he stabs me in the face”: frontstage and backstage reactions to teasing’, in Bell, N. (ed.), Multiple Perspectives on Language Play, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, pp. 169-198.

Sinkeviciute, V. (2017). ‘“It’s just a bit of cultural […] lost in translation”: Australian and British intracultural and intercultural metapragmatic evaluations of jocularity’. Lingua 197, pp. 50-67.

Sinkeviciute, V. (2019a). Conversational Humour and (Im)politeness: A Pragmatic Analysis of Social Interaction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Sinkeviciute, V. (2019b). ‘Juggling identities in interviews: the metapragmatics of ‘doing humour’’. Journal of Pragmatics 152, pp. 216-227.

Spencer-Oatey, H. (2011). ‘Conceptualising ‘the relational’ in pragmatics: Insights from metapragmatic emotion and (im)politeness comments’. Journal of Pragmatics 43, pp. 3565-3578.

Su, H-Y. (2019). ‘The metapragmatics of Taiwanese (im)politeness: conceptualisation and evaluation of limao’. Journal of Pragmatics 148, pp. 26-43.

Tracy, K. (2008). ‘“Reasonable hostility”: Situation-appropriate face-attack’. Journal of Politeness Research 4 (2), pp. 169-191.

Tragesser, S. L. & Lippman, L. G.. (2005). ‘Teasing: For superiority or solidarity?’ The Journal of General Psychology 132 (2): 255-266.

Verschueren, J. (1985). What People Say They Do With Words: Prolegomena to an Empirical-Conceptual Approach to Linguistic Action. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Verschueren, J. (2000). ‘Notes on the role of metapragmatic awareness in language use’. Pragmatics 10 (4), pp. 439-456.

Walkinshaw, I. (2016). ‘Teasing in informal contexts in English as an Asian lingua franca’. Journal of English as a Lingua Franca 5(2), pp. 249–271.

Wierzbicka, A. (1996). ‘Contrastive sociolinguistics and the theory of “cultural scripts”: Chinese vs. English’, in Hellinger, M. & Ammon, U. (eds.), Contrastive Sociolinguistics, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 313-344.

Yang, K. S.(1992). ‘Do traditional and modern values coexist in a modern Chinese society?’ Conference on Chinese Perspectives on Values. Taipei: Centre for Sinological Studies.

Ye, Z.-D. (2004). ‘Chinese categorization of interpersonal relationships and cultural logic of Chinese interaction: an indigenous perspective’. Intercultural Pragmatics 1 (2), pp. 211-230.

Zajdman, A. (1995). ‘Humorous face-threatening acts: Humor as strategy’. Journal of Pragmatics 23, pp. 325-339.