The Serious Business of Being Funny
Managing humor, culture and virtual technology in the 21st century.
This article is from the February 2016 edition of the Toastmaster magazine.
“When in Rome …” the saying goes, means that what’s funny in Italy will not necessarily make them laugh in Los Angeles. Anyone who has made presentations abroad learns this very quickly. As all good presenters know, humor is universal, but jokes may not be. So while using humor is always a good strategy, using jokes can be a poor tactic, precisely because what makes a joke funny is often an aspect of the local context. If the audience does not know the context, the joke bombs.
For example, I once prepared a presentation in Hong Kong. Just before I went on, a colleague reminded me that in Asia, a great way to kick off a speech is to express humility, based on the Chinese value of individuals humbling themselves. He suggested that I apologize upfront in the event my speech would fail to meet the audience’s expectations.
As an American, I viewed this strategy as the kiss of death for my presentation, wanting instead to open with a humorous anecdote about cultural differences, the topic of my talk. So I thought about this cultural dilemma. When I went on stage, I announced that I understood that here in Hong Kong, I would garner respect if I started my presentation with an apology of sorts. I said that in my country, the United States, we would prefer to start off with a joke. So, to accommodate both cultures, I apologized for not having any jokes to tell. The audience laughed, and it was a great way to intro- duce the topic of my talk: making presentations across cultures.
The Challenges of Technology
Following the old rules for delivering humor across cultures is no longer enough as we are now also required to manage new virtual technologies. In today’s world, we not only communicate and make presentations face-to-face, but increasingly we are doing so virtually. We use technologies such as WebEx and Skype, and make our presentations and keynote speeches to groups both large and small around the world, often to audiences comprising many different cultural groups.
Using humor face-to-face in cross-cultural situations is tough enough; doing so virtually can be even trickier. Additional rules must be understood to successfully communicate through technology.
Well, maybe. For most presenters, technology isn’t really new. After all, speakers have been using microphones, PowerPoint projections, lights and cameras for a long time.
We know that being comfortable with the equipment we use is essential to successfully relaying a message. We had to learn how to use the camera and the microphone, and we need to do the same with Skype and broadband.
An additional complication has emerged as well. While cameras are common in face-to-face presentation situations, most of the time the audience is still there, giving us immediate feedback. Cameras, however, in most virtual presentation situations, do not allow us to see our audience, and so the feedback we get is severely limited. We need to be sure that the humorous anecdotes we communicate are well-received and understood. Therefore, it is essential that we test humor in a live setting before we use it in a virtual environment, whether crossing cultural lines or not.
Any presentation that displays content through images and written words (e.g., via PowerPoint) needs to be culturally appropriate for everyone. That can result in a difficult balancing act, as the content must be free of culturally offensive references while not eliminating the local flavor and color that might be essential to understanding the information being communicated (or the joke being told).
Be sure to review all graphics and text for cultural appropriateness. And if associated with a humorous anecdote or joke, these elements must not distract from the funny part of your joke. Glaring, culturally inappropriate graphics or text, despite your best intention, will immediately distract from, and undermine, the quality of your humor.
Culturally inexact spelling (“humor” in the United States versus “humour” in the United Kingdom) doesn’t often distract very much from a presentation. A larger problem occurs when words have different meanings in different cultures (e.g., “fanny” in the United States refers to one’s rear end, but in Britain it’s called one’s “bum,” and “fanny” refers to female private parts). Another issue can arise when using terms with no comparable meaning in other cultures. American sports clichés such as “ballpark figure,” “left field,” and “step up to the plate” come to mind, as well as expressions such as “do the needful” in Indian English, or English that is characteristic of the Indian subcontinent. Care should also be taken when employing acronyms and abbreviations that are specific to only one culture or industry (e.g., “asap,” “ETA” or “CYA”).
Scrub all of your graphics of any culturally inappropriate images. Religious or political images would be the obvious place to start, but also consider, for example, the use of color, as colors carry culturally different meanings (e.g., red is good in Asia, green is good in Muslim cultures, but green or yellow are not good to use in Thailand or the Philippines.). Even the degree to which text and graphics are used varies culturally. In Asia, for example, the use of symbols, numbers and pictures is much more effective than text or words on a screen, while in continental Europe, the use of bullet-pointed, logically connected text that represents concrete ideas leading to a final conclusion is highly effective.
Are You Speaking My Language?
And then there’s language, the fundamental element of every culture. It’s important to remember that individuals in other cultures are speaking a kind of “global English” which they may have learned or perhaps mastered—or not—and that their first or even second language may not be English. Therefore, English-speaking presenters must take responsibility for being understood. The best way to do that is to speak slowly enough to receive confirmation from audience members that they, in fact, understand the words you are using.
This audience feedback can take the form of direct information (certain cultures are very good at telling you exactly what they think and feel in the moment). But with other cultures, you may have to tune in to what their silence implies. Good presenters do this all the time when an audience is physically present. However, when speaking virtually, it may be very difficult to get any kind of feedback at all. Again, test your content in a face-to- face situation first.
Always speak slowly and allow listeners the time they need to “translate” your English as you speak. Opt for words with fewer syllables when you have a choice, and always avoid acronyms and local terms that don’t translate well. Put your words through this “cultural neutralizer” process, especially when telling a humorous story, prior to delivery to weed out anything that won’t easily be understood. Nothing kills a joke faster than when listeners don’t understand what you’re saying.
What’s Your Style?
Style is also subject to difference. Much British humor is based on the ability to use the meaning of a word or phrase to its opposite intent. This is the heart of irony, a form of humor that is not as common, and therefore not as well understood, in direct- speaking cultures like Switzerland, Germany or the Netherlands. Sarcasm can be seen as hurtful in places such as Latin America, but considered super-funny in India or Israel precisely because of its abrasive, in-your-face, over-the-top nature. Humor based on self-deprecation (making yourself the butt of the joke) is appreciated in the West, but in Asia, instead of generating a laugh, self-deprecation will more likely elicit quiet empathy and discomfort with the unfortunate situation that you are experiencing.
Differences in cultural preferences even arise in what is visually funny. Pratfalls and physical humor play well in some cultures, but not well in others (generally speaking, yes in France and Italy; no in Malaysia).
It’s funny how culture plays a crucial role in determining what’s funny—or not. As presenters, we can learn to be effective in selling that joke or funny story. But no amount of skill will ensure the success of a joke or humorous anecdote if the content and style are culturally inappropriate. This is especially true when presentations—and the humor that should be an essential part of them—are dependent on virtual technology. Mastering all three elements of successful presenting today—managing humor, managing culture and managing virtual technology—is possible, and must be the goal of every great presenter in the 21st century. For those of us who make our livelihood presenting today, this is no laughing matter.
DEAN FOSTER is an expert on culture in business and frequently lectures at various universities and conferences. He is the author of many books including Bargaining Across Borders and the Global Etiquette Guide series. He is the director of his own firm, DFA Intercultural Global Solutions (dfaintercultural.com).