Braving the Cross-Cultural Humor Divide

Happy 2016! Welcome to the new ‘Cultural Synergist’ design.
After Christmas I enjoyed a short holiday on the Great Ocean Road, Victoria with my family.  As we were enjoying a walk along one of the many beaches I couldn’t help but overhear a largely Asian tour group meandering along the beach close by.  I overheard the tour guide tell a joke.  To me the joke sounded quite amusing, but judging by the immediate reaction (or rather lack of) of his tour group, not many other people did!  Aside from a few polite giggles there was mostly silence and looks of confusion.  My immediate thought was that people probably didn’t understand the joke.  Maybe there were language and accent difficulties, humour differences etc.
Humour across cultures is very difficult.  Aside from the lack of a shared background, there are many subtle nuances, common phrases and local references in humour and joke telling that can very easily fall flat when told to foreigners.  When we engage in humour, we unconsciously make assumptions that our audience/s are similar to ourselves and will therefore receive the humour in a manner that we intend it to be heard.
There is no doubt that communicating humour is one of the most difficult cross- cultural communication challenges that exists.  In countries such as Japan, humour rarely crosses hierarchical borders and wouldn’t be appropriate in formal contexts; while in other cultures such as Australia, humour can be appropriate in these settings and viewed as a means of reducing tension and balancing power inequities.
So how do we know if our humour will be received as funny, misunderstood or offensive in the context of no shared knowledge and background with our audience?   Here are some basic guidelines:
  • It is essential that you have a high level of cultural and language awareness, sensitivity and understanding.
  • As a general guide I recommend avoiding sarcasm and jokes, rather wit and self-deprecation can often be safer options. 
  • Observe others – how they deliver and receive humour. Take note of the context, seniority, facial expressions, body language, etc.
I often remind my expat coaching clients that when they find themselves understanding local humour and sharing in it, they are well on their way to true cultural immersion.
Although there are cultural barriers to the shared understanding of humour, keep in mind that even within our own cultures what is considered funny and not funny vary enormously. I admired the tour guide I mentioned earlier because although his joke may not have received many laughs, he was brave enough to have a go.  I would guess that he probably had some insight that the content couldn’t be offensive and was making a genuine attempt to create a relaxed, light-hearted environment for the group.
While we need to be cautious when using humour in cross-cultural settings, I urge you to not be too discouraged because humour can be a great way to build relationships and begin to really understand your cross-border colleagues and clients.


As a new year’s gift for our loyal newsletter subscribers we have organised a free, signed copy of our recommended book for this month Breakthroughs – How to Confront Your Assumptions.  If would like a copy please add your details via this linkThank you for being a loyal newsletter subscriber.


"Breakthroughs: How to Confront Assumptions"
By Oscar Trimboli 2015

In his new book 'Breakthroughs', Oscar Trimboli shares his insights about how our thinking creates our reality. A big focus is on assumptions, perspectives and gaining clarity, motivating the reader to find alignment.
Some of the key questions Trimboli asks are: 
  • Are you struggling to inspire and lead your organisation?
  • Do you find that you can’t get the traction you need to achieve impactful results for yourself and others?
  • Are you running up against brick walls in your interactions with others?
I like the discussion around clarity and the essential ingredient of clear and consistent communication to create lasting change. Understanding how quickly we make assumptions and the impact that they have, either serving us or holding us back, is a valuable skill to have.
There are some great exercises here, handy summaries at the conclusion of each chapter and some insights that I think you will find useful. See our ‘This Month’s Featured Product’ section to find out how you can receive a free copy of this book.


Listen to Dr. Tom Verghese speaking at the AHRI National Convention 2015 on ‘Cultural Intelligence for Global Leaders’.
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