Translating humor across cultures
Every year, on New Year’s Eve, German TV broadcasts a black-and-white British comedy sketch, Dinner For One. It’s eleven minutes of pure slapstick, in English, that has millions of Germans clutching their sides – while most Brits have never heard of it.
Dinner For One, or Der 90. Geburtstag, as the title is translated, is just one curious example of how humor transcends cultures, language and stereotypes. There are more. Cockney comic Norman Wisdom was a cult hero in Albania, of all places. Mr Bean, played by Rowan Atkinson, is one of Britain’s most successful comedy ambassadors, the show being sold to more than 200 TV territories worldwide, although many British people find that character both annoying and embarrassing.
What these three have in common, though, is a strong non-verbal element, a dose of slapstick and kind of innocence, which may explain their popularity, and might be the key to using humor across cultures. Humor is extremely useful in a cross-cultural situation. It builds trust and intimacy. Sharing a joke is the best way to break down barriers. Laughter is universal. But if your joke falls flat on its face, either for being inappropriate, or just not funny, newly forged business relationships could be doomed to failure.
How to use humor across cultures
How – and where – to use humor is difficult to judge. When addressing a group from your own culture, in your own language, humor can be an ideal way of getting the audience’s attention. But generally speaking, when making a presentation to a cross-cultural audience, leave the jokes in your briefcase. An eloquent speech or a clever argument are one thing but most audiences, wherever you are in the world, don’t need a stand-up routine. Dignity and professionalism are better. Tell jokes in a presentation and you may be regarded as amateurish, or lightweight. A play on words is one thing in your own language, but the chances are, it will be lost in translation. And while a speaker native to the country you’re in may make jokes at the expense of the neighbors – Uruguayans poking fun at Argentinians for their vanity, and Americans telling Canadian jokes, French telling Belgian jokes and so on, it is not the place of a foreigner to do this.
“When making a presentation to a cross-cultural audience, leave the jokes in your briefcase.”
When you are bonding with overseas counterparts over dinner, however, humor is another matter; it can turn a working relationship into a long-lasting one. If you get it right, that is. In China, Japan and other Asian countries, people love slapstick comedy like Mr Bean. But using this kind of self-deprecating humor yourself, playing the buffoon, could cause you to lose face; your colleagues will wonder why you are laughing at your own expense, unless you know one another particularly well. Laughing at situations in which nobody is singled out or humiliated is safer.
Russians, on the other hand, will laugh at themselves, their sense of melancholy, their enjoyment of drink and the state of their country. Australians, too, are not afraid to mock themselves, and others. Arabs can have a fine sense of self-deprecating humor, while Indians love satirical jokes about family and society. Join in the laughter in any of these countries, and possibly throw in a quip or two about your own nationality, but never theirs.
Do take a second to picture the worst possible outcome if you’re planning to tell a joke in a business situation – to colleagues from your own culture and from elsewhere. Who could it offend? Is it racist, sexist or ageist? Disrespectful of anybody? Will you, or anybody else, lose face? Laughter is a wonderful thing but remember the old adage: If in doubt, leave it out.
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