There is no doubt about it: We love to laugh. We love telling jokes, watching silly movies, and being sarcastic. We view a sense of humor as a positive personality trait. In uncomfortable situations, we often look to lighten the mood with something funny. It is easily argued that most people around the world agree that humor is usually a good thing. However, what exactly people find funny can vary significantly across cultures. This is very important to keep in mind when doing business internationally.
Our varying sense of humor. How many times have you sat down to watch a comedy only to walk away feeling either offended, confused, or disgusted? Even within our own culture there is a wide array of comical approaches. Words like crude, dry, witty, sarcastic, and dark all describe some of the many different types of humor within our society. Outside of our culture, you will find even more. We have all told a joke that didn’t exactly resonate within someone, leaving both parties feeling awkward and embarrassed. The likelihood of this happening is high when conversing with someone who is of a different cultural background than you. Even if your delivery is stellar, and you are clear to enunciate every word of your funny story, your listener might not find it amusing simply because of his or her cultural background.
Humor in the workplace. Is it appropriate? You are meeting with a client, and things seem to be going great. To make things flow even more smoothly, you decide to tell a joke. However, instead of laughing and smiling, you find your client glancing back at you disapprovingly. What went wrong? Even though you may have told a joke that could be seen as universally funny, some cultures frown upon the informality created by humor. To be respectful of a culture’s business practices, you need to be aware of whether or not they view the inclusion of humor as appropriate during professional transactions.
It’s hard to be funny. Oftentimes, your jokes simply won’t translate because they include a pun or an idiom unique to your country. Being culturally sensitive includes taking care to monitor your humor, and in more than just one way. Nevertheless, if your jest does end up being misunderstood, be open about your mistake and try to laugh it off. Sometimes your embarrassment, rather than your joke, can help to ease some tension between you and your international client. We are humans, after all.