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Is Your Humor Cross Cultural?


Goetz Mueller once said, “something may be humorous in certain regions but deadly serious in others.” and he is dead right!

Humor, along with native phrases, gestures, body language, appearance, and many other factors you use in your daily life, can literally get lost in translation when presented in a different language, or to an audience with a different culture.

If you are speaking to someone with a different culture than yours, you will need to be sensitive to using appropriate humor. Cultural context plays a crucial role in determining what is funny and what is not. We may consider humility as a sign of weakness in the American culture, however, it is viewed as an honorable value trait in most of Asia. Humor based on self- criticism is appreciated in the west, but in Asia, instead of generating a laugh, self- criticism will more likely produce empathy and discomfort with the unfortunate situation that you are experiencing. So which style of humor should you use? This is when the phrase “know your audience” and “practice, practice, practice” is critical to your success.

If you are unsure whether your listeners or audience will be receptive or offended by your jokes, try out your material ahead of time. I recommend testing your speech on a variety of people to get their feedback. Practice in front of a diverse group of people that you trust and be ready to accept their honest opinion on whether the material is appropriate or not. Make sure that your group consists of people from a multitude of cultures and races.

You will also need to be mindful of your body language and nonverbal communication. They can mean different things to different cultures. Communication such as gestures or facial expressions can be a tricky thing. For example, making the “ok” sign with your hand- creating a circle with your thumb and forefingers- is viewed as a positive gesture in English speaking countries. However, it is considered offensive in such countries as Russia, Brazil, and Germany. And in Japan, that same gesture symbolizes money.

Pay attention to visual humor too as it can play well in some cultures, but not well in others. What can be a yes in Italy and France, will be a no in Malaysia.

When translating humor into a language that is not familiar to your group of culture, i.e.: non-European language, be aware of cultural accuracy and appropriateness. If you are from Canada and delivering a speech in Bahrain using a language of ridiculing people or mentions of alcohol, you will kiss goodbye to your audience as it is considered offensive.

Phrases or individual words can present challenges not just across countries but within them too. I had a German friend who was both fluent in German and Swabian (a language spoken in southwestern Germany) tell me that when some phrases are uttered in Swabian, in a statement of astonishment, can be profane and rude when used in German. The same applies anywhere in the world. The jokes in Indonesia Chinese and the jokes in mainland Chinese will not be the same because of different cultures.

Some humor of course, does not need a translation. Nimble speakers can tackle topics people around the world find funny. That has been a strength of world-renowned speakers. They strike a universal chord.

Luckily, you do not have to be a cultural expert to increase your ability to communicate across languages and regions whether with humor or other content. You just must take time to understand and be aware.


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