A. Gornostaeva
Moscow State Linguistic University (RUSSIAN FEDERATION)
In the modern global world the item of developing intercultural competence has acquired a particular importance. It is recognized that successful intercultural communication is impossible without the knowledge of background information, which includes communicative and cultural values, history and traditions. Being an essential part of a language culture, humour and irony pose vast challenges for research. The studies of humour and irony (Attardo 2007, Bilig 2005, Hutcheon 2005, Simpson 2003) show that both phenomena have national and cultural peculiarities which should be taken into consideration while understanding and interpreting the implied sense. On the contrary, the inability to penetrate into the disguised meaning of an ironic utterance may cause communicative failures, misunderstanding and even conflicts. The present paper focuses on the functions and objects of humour and irony in the modern discourse and is based on the authentic material of the speeches of British, American and Russian cultural and political figures. The aim of the paper is to single out some national peculiarities of humour and irony usage thus contributing to its better understanding for a foreign addressee. The results of the study can be applied in the development of discourse theory as well as teaching and learning intercultural communication.
Keywords: humour, irony, discourse, communication, interpretation, competence.
In the modern globalized world connections between nations are becoming stronger and questions of intercultural communication require primary attention. It has been noted that mastering a foreign language is not sufficient to ensure successful dialogue and understanding; no less important is the knowledge of cultural and communicative values, which form an integral part of the picture of the world, present in people’s mind. Humour and irony form an essential element of this picture and reflect national mentality, self identification and the way a nation perceives the world. That is why there is a strong necessity to absorb and understand national humour, be able to interpret it in the right way and react appropriately. The inability to understand humorous and ironic utterances of a foreign interlocutor can cause communicative failures, lead to growing tension and eventually discourage the speakers. On the contrary, background knowledge about the partner’s national humour peculiarities will contribute to better understanding and result in efficient productive communication.
In analyzing the role and functions of humour and irony in the frame of national mentality I rely on the hypothesis that these notions are integral elements in the English style of communication [1], [2]. Not being able to use irony makes the English vulnerable like “turtles devoid of their shells” [1], while in the Russian communicative culture irony and humour are desirable only in certain situations [2] The roles, humour and irony perform in discourse, are variable – from mocking to soothing, as well as entertaining or making a statement. The role of self-irony is most prominent both in English-speaking and Russian speaking cultures, as it serves to discharge tension and save the face of the speaker [2]. Researchers point to such functions of humorous and ironic utterances as: conveying ethnic identity and cultural values, strengthening social norms, reflecting beliefs of people [3;4;5;6;7;8]. Humour and irony may also express solidarity and minimize the distance between interlocutors [9], as well as enhance the distance and exclude outsiders, serving as “a boundary marker” [10, P.319].
This paper is based on comparative analysis of the use of humour and irony in the speeches of contemporary English, American and Russian celebrities.
In order to compare and find common trends and differences in the national humorous and ironic discourses several scenarios were singled out:
– Mockery or attack
– Self-defense
– Entertaining the interlocutor and the audience
– Optimizing interpersonal communication
According to these scenarios the analysis of humour and irony roles and functions was carried out, which made it possible to draw a number of conclusions.
3.1 Humour and irony as the notions of the comic
Such notions as “humour”, “irony”, “sarcasm”, “satire” belong to the vast sphere of the comic and each has its own peculiarities. Humour generally aims at causing laughter; the mission of irony is to express the attitude to the object. Defining humour, both in the English and Russian linguistic culture, is closely connected with words describing positive feelings, meaning something giving pleasure. Irony is normally more critical than humour; it often conveys criticism, mockery and sometimes negative attitude. However, it should be noted that irony does not necessarily contain a negative modality, because it often follows the optimistic usage template [11]. Definitely irony conveys an opinion [12] and is a matter connected with ideology or understanding of the world [13].
Nevertheless, humour and irony can be viewed as closely related phenomena, since they often perform common functions: settling conflicts [14], enhancing solidarity, optimizing communication, expressing support [5].
3.2 Humour and irony and communicative values
To understand humour and irony it is important to take into consideration a number of social factors, such as the type of relationship between interlocutors, their gender, cultural and ethnical identity [10]. It is also important to have a background knowledge about the norms of using humour in this or that culture, the understanding of what is considered to be funny. The notion of national humour, which is closely connected with cultural and communicative values, is of primary importance [15; 16; 17; 18]. The understanding of irony can differ not only interculturally, but within one and the same culture: “The word “irony” does not now mean only what it meant in earlier centuries, it does not mean in one country all it may mean in another, nor in the street what it may mean in the study, nor to one scholar what it may mean to another” [19, P. 9].
Thus, a great number of factors should be taken into account in order to interpret a humorous or ironic utterance. If the estimation of the situation is incorrect, the communicative act is bound to be a failure [20; 14].

3.3 Scenarios and functions
The functions of irony and humour can be different, according to the situation they are used in and the communicative intention of the author. It is reasonable to describe certain scenarios to single out the tasks these devices perform (in Russian and English-speaking discourse).
3.3.1 Mockery and attack
In the USA pre-election campaign there were a lot of ironic utterances directed at candidates for presidency. Such as:
(1) Hillary Clinton said she may not run for president because she loves having time to hang out with her friends. Thankfully, most of her friends live in Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Florida, and the great state of Pennsylvania [21].
Here Seth Meyers, an American writer and actor, hints upon the desire of Hillary Clinton to conceal her determination to run for presidency. The implied meaning is that she denied this fact but at the same time started the campaign. To understand the irony and the scorn of the speaker one should be acquainted with the situation around Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign. Besides, it is a matter of being hypocritical, which is very shameful for a statesman, especially in American society, especially bearing in mind the scandal around Bill Clinton, who was accused of lying.
Humour as mockery is often used by the Russian president. For example, being asked at a press-conference about the theft of Robert Craft’s ring during his stay in Russia, V. Putin retorts:
(2) I do not remember either Mr.Craft or his ring… But if it is so important I will ask to make a really precious ring, so that everybody could see it is really expensive. I think it would be the best solution of this difficult international problem [22].
The hyperbole “difficult international problem” means exactly the opposite – that the matter is not worth discussing, especially at the press-conference, where important things are under consideration. The promise to make “a really precious and expensive ring” reveals the scorn regarding material values, which in the Russian culture are thought far less important than spiritual ones.
3.3.2 Self-defense
This function of humour and irony often helps the speaker to avoid unpleasant discussions and prevent possible bitter remarks or criticism.
For example, the president of the Russian Federation, V. Putin reacts to European sanctions:
(3) They will not have enough resources and petrol to go around Russian boarders. How can one speak about the isolation of Russia? [23].
Irony in the president’s speech serves to save the face and performs the function of defense. In order to understand the implicit meaning one should be aware of the current tense political situation and of the picture of the world, typical of Russian mentality: the country is huge, the boarders are vast: that makes it impossible to defeat Russia.
With the same purpose – saving the face – the British actress Fay Ripley closes the unwelcome topic, using irony in the interview with Jeremy Clarkson in “Top Gear”:
(4) Jeremy: “Reviews: Fay Ripley – whore.
Fay: “Welcome to my life!” [24]
Here the actress does not deny the accusation, but accepts it, as if inviting more questions. But in reality the phrase “welcome to my life” contains the meaning, opposite to literal and reflects one of the most important communicative values of the British culture – privacy. The interviewer understands the ironic sense, and the topic is closed.
3.3.3 Entertaining the interlocutor and the audience
Entertaining the audience is an essential part of discourse, especially in the public arena. It gives the speaker an opportunity to amuse the listeners, discharge tension and enhance his/her own charisma. Like in the presidential debate:
(5 – Interviewer. Are you a puppet for your donors?
– Bush. Absolutely not. The only guy who wanted me to change my views and gave me money is Donald Trump. He wanted casino gambling in Florida.
– Trump. No. I promise – if I wanted it I would have got it.
– Bush. You got Hillary Clinton to come to your wedding because you gave her money. Maybe you work for Hillary Clinton…
– Trump. I am a businessman, I’ve got to get along with everybody.
– Bush. But the fact is…
– Trump. Excuse me… Jeb, for a second…
– Bush. No!
– Trump. More energy today, I like that [25].
In this conversation candidate Jeb Bush is absolutely serious, while Donald Trump enjoys himself and resorts to humour. His statement “if I wanted it I would have got it” is rather self-assured and a so-called praise of the opponent “More energy today, I like that” shows Trump’s superior attitude to Bush. This kind of humour is assertive and indulgent, very typical of the American culture and communicative values. It has a positive effect on the audience – it laughs and supports Trump more than Bush, because Trump is amusing and entertaining it.
3.3.4 Optimizing interpersonal communication
Humour and irony are often used in order to enhance intimacy, discharge tension and minimize the distance between the interlocutors or the speaker and the audience.
(6) I think the majority of people in this country are libertarians, but they don’t know about it [26].
These words of the leader of the Libertarian party Gary Johnson serve to attract attention of the listeners and by means of using mild humour raise the rating of his party.
In ex-president Obama’s speech (after an unexpected victory of D. Trump) humour serves to encourage people:
(7) I said to the American people, regardless which side you are on in the election, regardless whether your candidate won or lost, the sun would come up in the morning. And that’s one bit of prognosticating that actually came true. The sun is up [27].
Here the humorous phrase “one bit of prognosticating that actually came true” which denotes an obvious thing “The sun is up” reveals positive thinking and optimism, so valuable for the Americans.
The British actor and commentator David Mitchell speaks about economic problems, adding an utterance, full of ironic ambiguity:
(8) Paying the correct amount of tax is an incredibly broad grey area… there are fifty shades of grey [28].
Irony here is based on the play of words – “grey” (obscure, unclear) and “fifty shades of grey” (the title of an erotic best seller). The additional ironic meaning (diminishing the tax system and comparing it to bdsm relations) can be understood only by those who know the book. The latter utterance discharges the serenity of the discussion, making it playful.
The analyzed material proves that there are several common scenarios, which make the use of humour and irony highly desirable in both English-speaking and Russian-speaking discourse. These devices may convey mockery and criticism, defend the speaker and protect his/her privacy, enhance intimacy between the speaker and the addressee/the audience, amuse and entertain.
The functions of humour and irony and the frequency of their usage depend on the communicative values and the picture of the world, which form national mentality.
Understanding humour and irony used by a speaker requires background knowledge of national culture and traditions as well as personal information about the speaker, including his education, social status, profession etc.
Analyzing humour as a reflection of national character poses vast challenges for further research in the field of intercultural communication. The results of these studies can be used in teaching foreign languages and cultures, training interpreters and in the theory of discourse.

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For citation: Anna Gornostaeva. Humour and irony in the time of globalization: developing intercultural competence. Conference Proceedings: 13th International Technology, Education and Development Conference, Valencia, Мarch 2019, DOI: 10.21125/inted.2019.1241