Home » Humour
Category Archives: Humour
- Small talk is not so small
- Clarity of Purpose: Have a Clear Voice and Clear Topic to Get your Message Across
- Technical Skills Can Land You a Good Job, but it Won’t Help You Climb the Job Ladder: The Importance of Communication Skills at Work
- At a Job Interview, Think of Your Experience as a Bunch of Brightly Coloured Story Balloons
- “The Machine Stops”: A 1909 novel by E. M. Forster that predicted our addiction with social media (like “Wall-E”, but written 100 years previously)
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A client of mine is a professional woman from Japan who lives and works in Australia. She has a good job in a cultural organisation and she took me on as a coach because, as she said, “I have problem with my English.”
Well — she really doesn’t. She speaks carefully, grammatically, and is easy to understand After we discussed her situation at work and which areas she felt presented challenges, we realised that she had a harder time with small talk than she did with English grammar: She could easily perform the technical parts of her job, but the social aspects of it baffled her. “I am Japanese,” Yuna (not her name) said. “In my country, we are used to being very polite. We don’t like to talk about ourselves. When I am having lunch with my Australian colleagues, I do not always understand what I should say and what I should not say. And their humour. . !” She laughed a little and shook her head. “I do not always understand,” she said candidly. “And I know it is important to get along with my colleagues. I am not sure what to do.”
Yuna is right. Success in the workplace is based so much more than on simply how well we do our jobs. People bond over shared humour, shared conversation, and most of it seemingly trivial: small talk.
What is small talk? Malinowski, a famous anthropologist, first wrote about it in 1923.1 Small talk, he said, is talk that binds us together. While the topics that constitute small talk may seem trivial, its real importance lies in its actual function: to forge bonds amongst us.
All work talk and no small talk can be detrimental to your career.
Brett Nelson of Forbes lists six reasons why small talk is very important.2 The first reason he gives: you never know where small talk will take you. It only takes a little investment of your time (and the possibility of a bruised ego) to connect with someone. You never know.
It also makes you feel better, and makes you smarter. (Nelson cites serious research supporting these points.)
Not only that: mastering small talk can make you more productive.
Social scientists from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, have been researching office communication worldwide. Their research has shown that small talk is crucial in forging fruitful ties with colleagues. Without those ties, work does not get done as effectively. 3
Yet the sad fact is that many people just hate small talk. They would rather get their teeth pulled than listen to an interchange on Australian footie.
Next time—some tips on how you can become a small talk expert.
I am a coach in the Melbourne and Geelong area who specialises in the communications needs of executives who are non-native speakers of English. I believe in helping people find their stories through great pronunciation, vocal work, storytelling, and active listening.
Remember: “It’s your story. Get it right.”
1 Malinowski, B. “The problem of meaning in primitive languages,” in Ogden, C. & Richards, I., The Meaning of Meaning. London” Routledge, 1923.
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/