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Humour Does Not Travel Well

Humour does not travel

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Humour does not travel well – do we need proof?

A plane takes off from the airport. The captain is Jewish and the first officer is Singaporean-Chinese. It is not the first time they’ve flown together. After thirty minutes, the Jewish captain mutters, “I don’t like Chinese”. The First Officer replies, “Ooooh, no like Chinese? Why dat-lah?”. “You bombed Pearl Harbor. That’s why”. “Nooooo, noooo… Chinese not bomb Peahl Hahbah-lah. Dat Japanese, not Chinese”. “Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese… it doesn’t matter, you’re all alike”. Another thirty minutes of silence. Finally the First Officer says, “No like Jews”. “Why not? Why don’t you like Jews?”. “Jews sink Titanic.”. “No, no. The Jews didn’t sink the Titanic. It was an iceberg”. “Iceberg, Goldberg, Rosenberg, no mattah-lah… all same-lah”.

Stereotypical Jokes

You might call this a stereotypical joke, which represents Western insights about the wrong use of stereotypes rather than being purely aimed at poking fun at another. But would everyone ‘get’ the joke? I believe that some cultures would have no idea that it was meant to be funny. The funny part for me is that it is pitting different forms of humour against each other while using cultural bias: a kind of aggressive type of humour against a self-defeating type of humour.

Humour refers to the tendency to experience or express what is amusing and funny, which is usually accompanied with laughter and smiling. Each society or group of people have a sense of humour. However, literature evidence suggests that specific cultural dimensions influence perceptions of humor, humor usage, and the relationship between humor and psychological well-being differ across cultures (Martin & Ford, 2018) .

Have you ever been in a position – maybe during an overseas business meeting – when you thought it was appropriate to crack a joke and things went horribly wrong? You may have been trying to break the ice, to help release fear and anxiety, or to just show off your wit and great sense of humour. And the result: a stunned silence? – people are offended? Your ‘great’ joke went down like a lead balloon and you are desperately trying to rescue the business relationship.

An attempt to Analyse some of the Anglo Humour 

Americans may consider Australian humour a bit offensive as it is dark and often aims at taking ‘the Micky’ out of themselves or a situation. American humour may be considered a bit dull by the Australians: it involves telling jokes about things they consider too safe, too agreeable: the ones that everyone might find funny. The British humour seems to be taken ‘the micky’ both out of themselves and others. This may be considered just a bit too sophisticated for both Australians and Americans. Perhaps the Brits like hinting at the fact that it allows them to show off their intellectual ability and using their famous understatements. 

But in all fairness, as long as you talk among English native speakers you may actually get away with your own Anglo humour as the concepts underlying the humour are not always so different and are less likely to be regarded offensive.

Differences between East and West

Martin & Ford (2018) mentioned that in the West, being humourous is a desirable, positive trait of an individual: it makes people for example more attractive, more self-aware, and more capable. However, in the East the opposite seems true (possibly a left over from Confucianism). For example, Chinese might reluctantly admit that humour could jeopardising social status, and that restrictions and seriousness need to be more valued. There seems to be evidence that Westerners hold a positive attitude towards humour, whereas their Eastern counterparts look at it from a different perspective.  

The Westerner often uses humour as a coping strategy to breaking the ice, to lighten up, and to hide feelings. The Chinese will probably prefer to first properly introduce their team members with the appropriate status and respect taken into account. The Japanese and Koreans most likely prefer to start with an apology instead. Humour in the business environment can be seen as unprofessional, childish and might be misunderstood in these cultures. 

Also interesting, irony and sarcasm can be perceived as rather ‘Western concepts’ in a lot of Eastern cultures: the need for protecting, saving and giving face is deeply ingrained in their preferred way of relating and communicating to others. In these settings, irony and sarcasm are too confronting, too direct and too dangerous if one wants to maintain loyalty and harmony in a group, i.e. the team, the partnership, Joint Venture, or with clients.

When Humour does not Travel…

Globalisation – the process by which the world is becoming increasingly interconnected as a result of increased trade and cultural exchange – has brought massive change in people and culture, and subsequently in travel. We have learned that humour is a universal phenomenon, and that it is interculturally different. We still need to learn much more about the specific impact of culture on humour – especially in a globalised business environment. 

Humor is a universal phenomenon – it is also interculturally different.

In the meantime however, we need to be aware that humour is culturally tinted before cracking your favourite joke as it might just cost you the business deal… Leave your sense of humour at home until you are familiar with the new culture, and have found out how to adjust your style.

In cross cultural business the best advice may just be to first close the deal, and then test your joke-telling skills.


Martin, R. A., and Ford, T. (2018). The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Academic Press.

Tonglin Jiang, Hao LiYubo Hou (2019) Cultural Differences in Humor Perception, Usage, and Implications Frontiers in Phycology

Joost Thissen, Partner & Interculturalist
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