Culture Resource Centre

When Humour Does Not Travel Well

Humour does not travel

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A plane takes off from the airport. The captain is Jewish and the first officer is Singaporean-Chinese. It is the first time they’ve flown together and it’s obvious from their silence that they don’t get along. 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, and you might think that it 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 am sure that some cultures would have no idea that it was meant to be funny.

Have you ever been in this position in an overseas business meeting when you thought it was appropriate to crack a joke and things go horribly wrong? You might have been trying to break the ice, to lighten up the mood, to hide feelings of uneasiness or just show off your wit and great sense of humour. And the result? A stunned silence – your ‘great’ joke went down like a lead balloon and you are desperately trying to rescue the business relationship.

So, how can humour effect business in the global market situation?

Americans might consider Australian humour offensive as it often aims at taking ‘the micky’ out of themselves or a situation. American humour is considered a bit dull by the Australians: it is too ‘safe’ and aims far more at sharing the agreeableness among business partners.

The British humour takes ‘the micky’ both out of themselves and others and is probably considered a bit too sophisticated for both Australians and Americans. It hints at the fact that the Brits feel they have a unique knack for using words, phrases, and expressions. It allows them to show off their intellectual ability and using their famous understatements. Contrary to the Brits, Americans and Australians often tend to use their language much more as a functional rather than intellectual tool to get messages across as can be seen in the use of for example Australian language: ‘arvo’, ‘barbie’, ‘mozzie’, ‘pressie’, etc. The Australian humour is probably a bit too rough and shallow for the Brits as it is often too direct without the intellectual cleverness so aspired to in the UK. But in all fairness, as long as you talk among English native speakers you might actually get away with your own culturally specific humour as the concepts underlying the humour are not always so different and are less likely to be so offensive as to cost you the business relationship…

East versus West

The English native speaker often uses humour as a way of introduction such as breaking the ice, to lighten up, and to hide feelings. The Japanese and Koreans most likely prefer to use the apology instead, and the Chinese will probably prefer to first properly introduce their team members with status and respect taken into account. To a lot of Asian cultures, jokes are often seen as inappropriate in the business environment as it does not pay sufficient respect to the matter at hand. Jokes can be seen as unprofessional, childish and are often misunderstood. Starting with your favourite ‘icebreaker’ in your introductory address to a new Asian joint venture might result in increased tension in the meeting and is not deemed such a good idea. Furthermore, irony, and sarcasm are rather foreign concepts to most Asian cultures: the need for protecting, saving and giving face is so deeply ingrained in their preferred way of communicating and relating to others. In these settings, irony and sarcasm are too confronting, too direct and too dangerous if one wants to maintain loyalty within the in-group, i.e. the team, the partnership or joint venture.

When Humour does not Travel well

Humour is very much culturally influenced and you need to be aware of it before using your favourite joke as it might just cost you the deal… Leave your sense of humour at home until you are familiar with the do’s and don’ts of the humour in the new culture and, when you have found out how to adjust your style. The best advice may just be to FIRST close the business deal THEN test your joke-telling skills in a foreign business dealing!

Joost Thissen, Partner & Interculturalist
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Categories: Cultural Columns.