I was attending a training session in Singapore. The audience was primarily Singaporean, with some people from the U.K. and the USA. The trainer was a friendly, blustery gentleman from the USA. He genially beamed at his audience and thought he’d start off the session with a bang.
He told a joke.
Let’s just say—his session started with a whimper. The Singaporeans stared at him, stony faced. As an American, I kind of liked the quip and snickered. The Brits smiled politely.
The lesson here: BE CAREFUL WHEN USING HUMOUR. While scholars have noted that almost every culture worldwide does recognise, appreciate and produce humour, the kind of humour that different people like varies greatly from culture to culture.
What IS humour? Charles Darwin suggested that it is a form of communication that binds people (and others) together—indeed, many of the apes engage in laughter. Freud—being Freud—thought of humour as the release of sexual or aggressive tension. Contemporary scholars note that humour happens when we are given surprising information which is resolved in a bizarre manner.1 That is true. Think of a typical sit-com or movie and how people react to a situation. It’s their strange reactions that are so funny (Mr. Bean!).
Many of us will travel to different countries and work with people from different countries. Please note: what you think is funny—others might find un-funny. Here are some quick thoughts about the use of humour cross-culturally.
- Share common ground. It’s easy to crack a joke or tell a humorous narrative when you and your audience share the same culture or experiences. You and they will have “insider” knowledge that will allow you to tell jokes everyone will appreciate.
- Clear language. Make sure you do not use ambiguous language when being humorous. Keep the language simple. And if you are giving a joke in a language that is not your mother tongue—go over the material with someone who is a native speaker of that language to make sure you do not have some unintentional bits of humour.
- Body language. Some cultures (France and Italy) adore physical, slapstick humour. Other cultures (Malaysia) do not.2
Below is a very unscientific list of a few countries and the type humour they exhibit. (As always with this type breakdown: this list gives generalities. Different people in different countries will exhibit a wide range of humour. No generality will work for everyone.)
- Australia: Not only was the country “officially founded” by British convicts, it is DANGEROUS: snakes, treacherous waters, insects—if it’s hazardous, Australia has it. Ozzies have learnt to laugh at these conditions, with “no worries!” as their rallying cry. Folks from Down Under love to throw darts at people in authority. (Criticising politicians is a national sport here.) Similar to its British counterpart, Australian humour can also be dry and ironic. Australians love to joke, and don’t separate work and play—which can confuse some Asian co-workers, who often keep both realms separate. Aussies are serious about the work they do, but are also committed to having fun at the same time.3
- U.K.: Many people consider the Brits to have the most astonishing sense of humour in the world. Certainly, British comedies, with their blend of slapstick, irony, and verbal wizardry, are adored worldwide. People in the U.K. love to use irony—using the meaning of a word to denote its exact opposite—which can be wrongly perceived as sarcasm (see USA, below).4
- USA: The humour is like the Americans themselves: straightforward and un-subtle. (While many Americans love British humour, some will mistake the famous British irony for sarcasm.) Americans will often use humour to put themselves down, which can seem strange to many Asians who come from a culture that emphasises keeping one’s dignity (“saving face”). USA humour is often aggressive, and Americans love to tell sexual jokes. (However, it is not advisable to tell off-colour jokes at a business meeting!)5
- People’s Republic of China: Chinese jokes can be very hard for a Westerner to fathom, in large part because of its intricate written characters: they can be read left to right, right to left, or even from top to bottom. Many jokes will play with this positioning, so this specific humour will elude even the most open-minded Westerner. The Chinese may find jokes about one’s personal life as being—well—too personal. Contemporary Chinese comedians may tell sarcastic jokes about Fu’erdai,or the ‘rich second generation’: spoiled children born of newly wealthy parents.6
If and when you find yourself in a new culture and country—listen. Learn. And soon you’ll be laughing with them, and they will be laughing with—and not at—you.
I am available for individual coaching:
3http://www.meldmagazine.com.au/2011/09/aussie-humour/ & http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/austn-humour
6http://gbtimes.com/life/getting-sense-chinese-humour & http://www.expatfocus.com/c/aid=2152/articles/china/learning-to-laugh-in-china-appreciating-the-chinese-sense-of-humour/