Explaining the Joke

Cultural idioms and so forth being somewhat obscure, how much of a non-entity joke do you explain to someone from outside your culture?

Reason being, I walked into my lab and a foreign student was there. Good guy. We said hellos, and when he asked me how I was doing, I replied, ‘Another day in the salt mines.’

Immediately after saying that, I realized there’s an odd spin on that phrase in the US. Hence I explained it, but that left me explaining the joke, leading to this train of thought, etc.

In the US, salt mining was a fairly common thing, and before child labor laws went into effect, a lot of the salt miners were children. They worked in appalling conditions, and many of them died.

When an American says, ‘Another day in the salt mines’, or something to that effect, there’s inherent irony there. The message is ‘My job is nothing like the salt mines, I’m just feeling a bit lazy and don’t want to do it.’ That’s understood.

But it’s not understood if the listener isn’t American.

Generally, people take statements like that at face value, and the spins we’re used to putting on an expression isn’t inherent, it’s a reflection of culture. I see this a lot with memes taken from movies and TV. People react to the meme purely literally, and if the source material has some spin that isn’t conveyed, it is likely lost in translation. There’s nothing inherent about knowing Orson Welles was the only one clapping at the Academy Awards, or that comparing my easy job to salt mining is meant with the understanding that my job is easy.

So I explained the joke.

But people don’t like doing that or needing jokes explained.

I know some people who respond to this situation by trying not to make in-culture jokes to others, but then conversation becomes artificially stilted. It also develops its own exclusionary effects. If people are watching what they say around you, you notice.

He’s a good guy, and my job is easy.

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