Cross Cultural Humor — Diversity and Public Speaking

When I first thought about cross-cultural humor, the idea of speaking outside my own country was the first thing that  entered my mind.  But cross-cultural humor certainly applies to more than just speaking internationally.  Obviously if you’re an American speaking in Australia, you’ll be dealing with differences in culture and language that will have an impact on the laughter response you receive.  But you could be speaking within your own country and also face cultural gaps.  The challenges posed both inside and outside your own borders are very similar.

You might be speaking to an audience in your hometown, and the language you speak could be the audience’s second language.  I’ve spoken to local audiences whose first language was Spanish.  I’ve spoken to deaf audiences.

You could be speaking to an audience that doesn’t connect with your physical delivery.  Your audience could be blind. 

Your audience, because of their ethnic background, could be uncomfortable with extended eye contact.

You could be speaking to an audience that doesn’t respond to your pacing.  A fast-paced speaker presenting in the South may have a “cultural” challenge.

You could have a common language but have differences in race, religion or sex.  If you’re a white Jewish woman, you might have a “cultural” challenge speaking to a group of African-American Baptist men.  You don’t need to travel abroad to have challenges when you deliver a speech.

Here are some elements of the challenges you may face when speaking cross-culturally:

Common Experience:  The challenge with delivering humor is that the laughs are better when the speaker and the audience has a common foundation of experiences.  Common experience often provides the set-up for a joke.  Many jokes require the audience to have a specific bit of knowledge to understand the punchline.  A gap in common experience can be bridged by spelling out exactly what the audience needs to know in the set-up leading to the joke.  This can work, but it’s not ideal because it works against the principle of brevity.

Common Language:  The next challenge is the language itself.  Delivering a humorous talk to an English-speaking audience will pose challenges if you’re from the USA and speaking in the UK, or Australia, or Singapore, or India.  Besides the accent issues, many words have different meanings from one culture to the next.  These same issues apply to a speaker from Boston presenting in Fargo.  Or a speaker from Birmingham speaking in New York City.  A speaker needs to do his or her homework when speaking outside the comfort circle.  Your point-of-contact for the speech should be able to fill you in on some of the local do’s and don’ts and some variations in the meanings of words.  Also examine your humor lines with an eye for possible cultural/language issues and ask your host some questions.  You may want to actually test-drive your humor with a small group or an individual before you spring it on a large audience.

Different Language:  If you are speaking to a non-English speaking audience through an interpreter, the challenges are compounded.  You’re likely to tell a story with words that don’t make sense, with a twist that the audience doesn’t understand, and with timing that is totally lost in the translation!  My inclination in this situation is to use less verbal humor, more physical humor, and more substance and content.  I’m a comedy-magician, and that works well to bridge gaps caused by diversity.

Sense of Humor Differences:  I’ve been on the receiving end of humor presentations a few times.  Having watched several half-hour comedy skits in Vietnamese, I’ve found it’s possible to enjoy the humor even when you really don’t understand the content.  The body language and facial expressions of the actors go a long way in supporting the humor of the scenes.  And watching the audience response is educational and entertaining.  It’s also evident how cultural-senses-of humor are different.  A Vietnamese friend told me that a pie-in-the-face would be funny to an American, but that someone from Viet Nam would not find that funny.  British humor is noticeably different from American humor.  I’ve been told that the French love Jerry Lewis.  Part of that is his physical nature, and part of it is likely due to their cultural-sense-of-humor.  Understanding a culture’s sense of humor takes some study and asking the right questions.

The Physical Element:  A magician’s convention in Tokyo provided me with a study in cross-cultural presentations.  I discovered that the most effective magicians, performing to an international audience, were the ones who had predominantly visual acts.  Illusions and manipulations were good.   Visual comedy magic was even better.  A mentalist act which required lots of talking and translation was usually a dud.

Lessons Learned:
  – Be aware when you’re likely to be speaking to an audience filled with people who are different from you.  Don’t be taken by surprise.
  – Do your homework.  Ask questions.  Use a pre-program questionnaire.  Test your humor on small groups and individuals.
  – Work on your visual humor and body language.  Expressive physical delivery goes a long way to reach across cultural barriers.
  – Always have a clear understanding of the set-up for each joke.  The set-up is just as important as the punch line.  Be sure to include everything in the set-up that the audience needs for them to understand the punch line.  When common knowledge is missing it’s up to you to know it and provide it.
  – If you’re working with a translator, spend time before your talk to discuss the content of your speech, especially the humor segments.  The interpreter may have some excellent advice on what will work and what won’t work for that specific audience.

Related Articles:

Valuing Diversity 
Humor and Diversity