Presenting around the world: Cross-cultural humour guide

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Presenting around the world: Cross-cultural humour guide

“No amount of skill will ensure the success of a joke or humorous anecdote if the content and style are culturally inappropriate.”

-Dean Foster

Used skillfully, humour can help establish an instant rapport with your audience.

It can help drive home key points or messages, and information relayed with humour is more likely to be remembered.

It can increase interest in what you're saying and help to keep your audience's attention throughout your presentation.

It lets your audience see your human side.

But be careful. Humour can also confuse, befuddle, or even offend your audience, especially while presenting to people from a different culture.

3 tips for telling jokes in other cultures:

  1. Avoid making comparisons between the country you are in and other countries. 
     
  2. Even if people in the culture are self-deprecating, this is not an invitation to join in. Most people can laugh at themselves, but feel quite different when someone is laughing at them. 
     
  3. Run your jokes past the event organizer or a counterpart from that culture, as what may seem hilarious to you could be seen as confusing at best, and at worst, insulting.

Although non-exhaustive, this quick culture guide should give you a good idea of what is a go and what is a no in some major cultures from around the world.

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Read below for the text version of the PDF:

Western Europe

In FranceBelgiumDenmark, and Spain, the humour tends to be fairly dark, surreal, and self-deprecating. They like jokes about death and other serious subjects often associated with stress. Whereas in North America these jokes might seem like they “bring the energy down,” this audience finds them relatable and hilarious.

The British love playing around with language. This includes puns, innuendos, irony and wordplay. They find satire delightful, and their humour can range from ridiculously silly to darkly cynical. Over-the-top sincerity does not sit well with this audience.

While irony and sarcasm work well in England, across the channel, it is less appropriate. Countries like SwitzerlandGermany or the Netherlands prefer clear, direct, and to-the-point jokes rather than convoluted double entendres.

Italians enjoy pratfalls and physical humour, as well as puns and irony. Don’t be afraid to go exuberantly over-the-top with your delivery, using plenty of hand gestures. Speak as if you were using exclamation points!

NorwayFinlandSweden, and Iceland have some of  the darkest humour in the world. There is very little that is considered too dark for them. This can be rather jarring if you are unprepared for it. It has been said (probably by them) that they “have to make fun out of their own misery or they wouldn’t survive.” Death, murder, and destruction are fairly popular themes.

Germans might have one of the most diverse senses of humour in Europe. It’s important to note that they are far less likely to make (or laugh at) jokes in a business setting, where traditionally, seriousness and respectfulness reign supreme. Outside of work, however, comedy is a staple of their culture, and they very much appreciate a good laugh.

 

Eastern Europe

In Eastern Europe, satire and sarcasm are very popular forms of humour, and will generally get a good laugh from your audience, especially when topical. Hungarians have a notoriouslygreat sense of humour. While it may be considered cynical and dark, they have the ability to laugh no matter what life throws at them. In Poland, parody, slapstick and satire about politics or current events are quite popular. Just about anything can be the butt of a joke in Bulgaria, and foreigners may find Bulgarian humour too direct or insulting, since Bulgarians often make politically incorrect jokes.

In the Baltics, (LatviaLithuania, and Estonia) the sense of humour is rather subtle. One may be confused into thinking they simply lack a sense of humour, but this is a misconception. The humour can be generalized as a mixture of wit, self-deprecation, satire, and cynicism. Obvious, over-the-top slapstick, and off-colour humour is not popular in this region.

People in the Balkans are well-known for their use of gallows humour, and will often treat serious matters such as death, war, disease, and crime in a surprisingly light, silly, or satirical way. Avoid making broad generalizations about the area (for example, talking about how similar they are to their neighbouring countries) or implying that they are Russian or Slavic. While sarcasm, cynicism, and satire are popular forms of humour, as a rule, stay away from poking fun at their society, their government, or their economic situation, as this could be perceived as insulting.

In most parts of Eastern Europe, be careful when talking about communist history, or drawing comparisons between the country and Russia. This is a sensitive area which should be avoided.

 

Russia

Russians love a good laugh- but while jokes related to drinking and sex have their place in a social gathering, in a business setting, humour tends to be more high-brow, often requiring a wide range of knowledge on politics, sociology, science, and history. This being said, Russians will happily chuckle at what some cultures may find uncomfortable or off-limits such as social problems, the government, low-income classes, and uneducated people.

One notable feature of Russian humour is that they almost never joke about religion. It’s not because they are religious or have a deep respect for religion, but because religion simply had little relevance to daily life under Soviet rule.

Most Russians do not find physical pain or slapstick humour amusing. Avoid joking about someone’s family, as this is considered taboo.

 

Arab States

It is difficult to generalize the humour in all the countries in the Arab states. A joke that might go over superbly well in Oman might not do so well in Morocco. Likewise, the Turkish might find a story hilarious while the same story would flop in Tunisia. This being said, Muslims have a deep-rooted sense of humour and are not afraid to use it.

One rule of thumb that applies to all Arab states is that jokes should comply with the Quran, and the guidelines from the Hadiths should be followed.

Avoid poking fun at anything religious as this could easily be confused with blasphemy. Never make fun of families, elders, or deceased relatives, this is seen as disrespectful. Keep your jokes clean and in good taste.

Humour in Saudi Arabia is not a straightforward concept. There are a lot of confusing associations between telling jokes and wasting time, between letting out a laugh and loss of prestige. They have a tendency to brush over the more paradoxical parts of their society and do not appreciate foreigners trying to incite discussions and elicit change by poking fun at them. While gentle mockery might be seen as hilarious in some cultures, it can easily hurt feelings here, and might be taken it as direct criticism.

In Arabic culture it’s also quite common for people who feel slighted or insulted to avoid showing any negative reaction, so don’t rely on the facial expressions of the audience, and make sure you cross-check your jokes with a local before you get up on stage.

Many of the same guidelines for the Arab states should be used in Asian countries with a high Islamic population, such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Maldives.

 

Africa

Africans use laughter to make life more bearable. They use it to brighten up the darkest of life’s tribulations and even invite their funniest friends to funerals to help family and friends deal with the loss.

Jokes are often made about the traits of other ethnic groups, such as their speech and their customs. Such humour is fashioned around the differences among ethnic groups, not necessarily in a racist or offensive way, but more in a “Look at how funny the differences are between us” kind of way. Ethnic or tribal jokes are not often told in public settings, and as a foreigner, you should avoid them.

Conformity is very important, and if a person stands out, they are likely to be made fun of. That being said, gentle teasing is often used to establish contact and build bonds between people, and is very common.  Slapstick humour is a huge part of African humour and is almost guaranteed to get you a laugh.

 

Asia

Chinese people enjoy intelligent humour, but you should steer clear of sensitive topics such as politics or any form of cultural criticism. Jokes which are too personal (for example jokes about marriage or family life,) are not appreciated, on the same note avoid making fun of people, as it can quickly be taken the wrong way. Many foreigners who are not familiar with the concept of “Mianzi” (which roughly translates to ‘face’) may feel that the Chinese are overly sensitive or easily offended, but this respectful tradition, which ties together social harmony and self-respect, is a large part of Chinese culture.

Slapstick and physical humour are very popular in Japanese culture, however, they can be difficult to convey on stage in a business setting. While humour based on self-deprecation is appreciated in the West, in Asia, self-deprecation will more likely elicit quiet empathy and discomfort with the unfortunate situation that you are experiencing, instead of a laugh.

In Thailand and the Philippines, the people are easy-going and enjoy a good laugh. This being said, never make fun of their royal families, as they are very well respected in these countries. In Indonesia, audience members will often turn to their neighbours and repeat what the speaker says when they think it is funny or they like it, so don’t be put off if you get a large burst of conversation after you say something.

The Korean sense of humour is often very direct. On a whole, they appreciate funny voices. Almost everyone loves funny voices, but Korean audiences thrive on it. Slapstick and insult humour are very popular. Koreans will smile in a variety of situations such as when they are happy, sad, nervous or embarrassed.  Don't necessarily assume that a smile means that they are happy, or think your joke is funny.

Indian humour includes a lot of slapstick, practical jokes, and double meanings - the more obvious the better. When presenting to Indian audiences, it is important to use clear, unambiguous humour that can be well understood by all, rather than more localized humour. While Indians like to make fun of each other (for example, jokes about the difference in a neighbouring communities are very popular) foreigners should avoid them. Sarcasm and cynicism could be interpreted as insults and are often difficult to translate. Steer away from using dark humour, irony, or humour that is very subtle, as it will be lost on the majority of your audience.

 

North America

Canada has many sub-cultures from coast to coast. In particular, the French Canadian humour is considerably darker and more sarcastic than the English Canadian humour. Jokes which rely on stereotypical ideas of race or culture (including any jokes about First Nations people) will generally not go over very well. Many Canadians enjoy poking fun at Americans; it's almost part of the national identity. It’s not based on prejudice but more a way to differentiate themselves from their (rather similar) neighbours to the south.

It is difficult to generalize American humour, as it can be quite diverse. From sarcasm to slapstick, there is a little of something for everyone in America. Americans will often start a presentation off with a funny joke or story, to build rapport with their audience. Be careful about making jokes about politics (although this might seem like an easy target) as political views can be quite diverse and you run the risk of dividing and offending your audience. Also, as a foreigner, shy away from making sweeping statements about American culture, or how it compares to your culture, as Americans are quite nationalistic. Run your jokes past an American counterpart or the event organizer, as the audiences can be quite different from one event to the next, and a bad joke can sink your presentation.  

 

Latin America

Nothing escapes the Mexican’s dark sense of humour. From politics, race, and nationalities, to corruption, insecurity, and sexism, tolerance is much higher than in some more politically correct countries. This being said, avoid any jokes about their national or religious symbols, or anyone's relatives.

In Brazil, humour should be used carefully in serious situations. It can make you seem like you are not giving the subject respect, and that what you are saying lacks in gravitas. Brazilians prefer situational humour, which can be clearly linked to the context, rather than telling a joke or story that doesn’t have an obvious connection to the present setting.

The Chilean sense of humour is quite different from its neighbouring countries and can be perceived as offensive if you don’t understand it. Don’t be surprised if you don’t get the jokes straight off the bat. Chileans are very nationalistic and are proud of their country, and while they might make self-deprecating jokes about themselves and their country, as a foreigner, don’t try and join in. It is advised not to make jokes about religion, politics, historical conflicts, or social issues (for example, poverty).

Business is taken as a serious matter in Argentina, and while the people appreciate a good laugh, make sure to keep it keep it light and friendly, and don’t overdo it. Argentines can be very vocal about their opinions on politics and religion, but be careful, as it can be a very sensitive area. Avoid talking about historical events (for example, the Perón years or the Falkland Islands) as this could instantly divide and offend your audience. In social settings, don’t be offended if an Argentine mildly attacks your clothing or weight; teasing is very common in their culture and should not be taken seriously.

Remember these 4 things when presenting in other cultures

  1. What might be hilarious in one culture might not be as funny in another. The best way is to check and run your jokes past the event organizer or a counterpart from that culture.
     
  2. Be very cautious when talking about someone's familypolitics, and religion. In the majority of cultures, it is wise to steer away from off-colour humour. Making comparisons between the country you are in, your country, and neighbouring countries should generally be avoided.
     
  3. While many cultures appreciate self-deprecating humour, don’t perceive it as an invitation for you as a foreigner to join in. Most people can laugh at themselves and their society, but feel quite different if they feel someone is laughing at them. 
     
  4. While it may seem obvious, it’s important to remember that social situations can be very different than business situations. While the funny story you told at the bar last night got a laugh, up on stage it could fall completely flat. Make sure your jokes are appropriate for the setting. 
     

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Do your research, and check to make sure that your audience will get a laugh out of your jokes before attempting them on stage.

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See also:

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