Intelligence Matters

Letter from Poland
By Peter Gentle

A new study has concluded that, on average, Poles have the third highest IQ in Europe. So what were all those dumb American Polack jokes about then?

You must have noticed that people have become very interested in finding out their IQ scores. If you have been on the Internet recently then you will probably have been confronted with one of those extremely annoying pop-up adverts inviting you to ‘test your IQ’. And this obsession is not just confined to the Internet. Last October, the private Polish TV station, TVN, ran a programme entitled The National IQ Test, where viewers were invited to test their intelligence along with a few in-studio celebs. And I have seen exactly the same type of programme in Britain.

Now comes the revelation that Poles have an above the European average crop of brain cells. Apparently only two countries in Europe – Germany and Holland – attain higher IQ scores. And this latest finding concurs with an earlier study, which again put Poland third from the top in Europe. Poles achieve an average score of 108.03 – which is, of course, 8.03 better than the average European.

And here’s an interesting fact – maybe: to get into the American version of Mensa you have to have an IQ score of 135 or above. To get into the Polish Mensa you need a score of at least 148.

So if Poles are so intelligent, then why were they (are they?) for so many years, the butt of jokes in America? You know the sort of thing: How many Poles does it take to change a light bulb, etc. Even in the age of Political Correctness, the Internet still crawls with this sort of rubbish.

But telling these jokes in public can get you into a lot of trouble. In 1998, Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, was, for some reason, making a speech to delegates from the National Family Planning and Reproductive Association in Washington DC. He was talking about how great contraception was when he was asked by someone in the audience what he thought of the Pope – who, of course, isn’t particularly keen on condoms and the like. After a moments thought, Ted Turner answered (strangely) by telling a Polack joke. “What do you call a Polish mine detector?” asked Turner jocularly, and then pointed at his boot.

Boom, boom.

Have you picked yourself up off the floor yet? Good. I have heard English people tell exactly the same joke about the Irish. All nationalities seem to find some group of people for the butt of their jokes. The French used to tell jokes about the Belgians - maybe they still do. The Belgians told jokes about…other Belgians. The Canadians told jokes about people from Newfoundland.

The Poles, by the way, used to tell the same type of jokes about people from a little town in Poland called Wachock. For instance: Why did the Major of Wachock buy a round field? Because he bought his horse from a circus.

Sigmund Fraud, though not noted for his joke telling prowess, certainly wrote lots about jokes. He thought that jokes were a way of escaping from psychological repression. Jokes were a way of saying the unsayable. All very interesting, but it doesn’t explain why certain groups of people are picked on in this way. Nor does it tell us why some Americans thought that Poles were a bit thick.

I have heard many different explanations for this – ranging from the demographic characteristics of those early immigrants to the US from Poland, to the type of syntax used by Poles when learning English.

Not long ago I read a book by Christie Davies, called The Mirth of Nations. Davies is a joke sociologist – he analyses why nations tell jokes. The book was the full of the usual impenetrable sociological theorising; but basically, he was saying that people tell jokes, not as a release from their repression, or to relieve pent up aggression between ethnic groups, but simply because they are funny. (Sociologists have always been good at stating the bleedin’ obvious)

Well, when Ted Turner told his unfunny joke to the National Family Planning and Reproductive Association in Washington DC, Poles were not amused. In fact, a Polish foreign minister announced that Turner was a racist and a bigot, and that if he didn’t apologise, quick, then, “there would be financial consequences.” Turner did immediately apologise, of course, to the whole of Poland; all 39 million of them.

So making jokes about Poles and how thick they are is no longer acceptable, mainly because these jokes do not comply with reality. Poles seem to do particularly well in IQ tests for some reason, as the latest study proves.

But if Poles are the third most brainy Europeans (on the basis of IQ scores) then who are the least brainy? Well, with an average score of 96.1 - and that’s 12 below the Polish score - it’s…the French.

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