Online dating: Humour matters more than ‘good looks’ but immigrants struggle with local jokes

Online dating platforms have witnessed a surge of users and activities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdown restrictions and physical distancing protocols have changed the way people work and live — but also how they date.

Dating from home may help some singles stay connected, cope with anxiety and meet “summer love” in this isolating time.

As the virus shifts even more people to online dating, perhaps you are wondering what the secret is to standing out?

Before COVID-19, we conducted a research project about people’s experiences of online dating in Vancouver. What we found during our in-depth interviews may help answer that question.

Our study suggests that writing something short but witty on your profile will help you stay in the game. Many of our research participants highly valued a sense of humour in potential partners.

Humour matters more than ‘good looks’

Even if your online profile pictures are conventionally attractive, humour matters. Other research has also shown that dating candidates who show a good sense of humour receive higher ratings of attractiveness and suitability as long-term partners.

We also discovered something else during our interviews. We experienced many awkward moments when our respondents gave examples of funny instances. As immigrant interviewers, we just didn’t get the jokes.

When we asked for clarification, our research participants described humour as a coded language that was “hard to explain.” We often found ourselves Googling after our interviews to figure out what some jokes meant.

These moments triggered new questions for us. Could the desire for humour along with the snap-decision culture of online dating potentially create a divide between immigrants and people born and raised in Canada? Could the desire for humour also impact other areas besides online dating?

Many online daters said: ‘I just want to be with someone who is fun to be with.’

Humour as a cultural divide

From 2018-19, we interviewed 63 men and women in Vancouver who had used online dating sites or apps to look for different-sex relationships. About half of our respondents were Chinese immigrants (most of whom had arrived in Canada as adults). The other half were born in Canada and were from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.

The majority of Canadian-born respondents in our study — 81 per cent — used humour as a primary screening criterion in evaluating potential partners online. Many said they were able to quickly decide whether to like or pass on profiles, depending on whether a dating candidate appeared to be humorous. In contrast, less than 20 per cent of Chinese immigrants mentioned humour as something important.

When we asked our Canadian-born research participants why being funny or witty was so important to them, some told us: “I just want to be with someone who is fun to be with.” They said being funny or witty required “smartness,” a “fast grasp of relevance,” “divergent thinking” and “intelligence.”

When screening profiles, exchanging messages or meeting offline, respondents looking for humour found clues to evaluate the funniness of dating candidates. They believed this humour could be communicated, for example, through a self-deprecating introduction or picture, a joke based on a TV show or a witty use of puns.

Respondents often stressed that their desire for humour was a personal preference. But is it?

What is humour?

Humour is inherently a social construct. Being humorous requires a lucid linguistic fluency and years of cultural learning. Being able to appreciate each other’s humour requires people to have similar experience and share cultural references such as popular books and TV shows.

In sociology, this is called cultural capital. People from different backgrounds likely accumulate different cultural capital and so have different perceptions of humour.

The Canadian-born respondents in our study were open to dating both immigrants and people born in Canada, as long as their partners were able to hold a good conversation based on humour. Nevertheless, the expectation for their partners to possess humour in the Canadian context requires a lot of cultural capital that many immigrants may not have (especially those who are newcomers).

Adult newcomers commonly face challenges like language barriers, cultural shock and isolation. Many immigrants — even those who came to Canada early in life — live in ethnic enclaves and have segregated social networks. They may not be able to integrate into so-called “mainstream” culture.

Looking for humour in these fast-paced online environments can become a process of boundary-making between Canadians and immigrants.

Beyond online dating

The findings of our study might be applied beyond online dating.

In western contexts, especially, humour is used as a way to evaluate people in many situations. Current research is mixed on the benefits of humour when it comes to physiological well-being, relationship satisfaction and workplace harmony.

Yet humour is commonly regarded as a character strength. Humour is also found to increase evaluation ratings and promote career success.

Humour is found to be key to career success.

For immigrants who represent more than 20 per cent of Canada’s total population, how long does it take for them to get and crack a “Canadian” joke?

We have spent almost a decade in North America. Yet it’s not easy for us to understand certain jokes. If we feel this way, how long does it take for newer immigrants with less language proficiency and cultural capital than us to remain part of a conversation?

If humour is used in evaluating cultural fit in friendships, romantic relationships and employment, how long does it take for immigrants to navigate the culture of humour when making friends, seeking future partners or looking for jobs?

During COVID-19, a spike of xenophobia has challenged Canadians to reflect on the biases in our multicultural society. Reflecting on the implicit biases we hold when preferring someone who has an obvious “Canadian” sense of humour may also help to prevent divisions among us.