An article in the current month’s edition of Toastmaster magazine addresses a tricky issue in the field of humour: managing to be funny while minimizing negative cultural fallout.
As those who have given talks outside their native land (or even to sectors within it) have come to recognize, what’s funny here may not be considered funny there.
The American author relates how he had a presentation to prepare for a Hong Kong audience. A colleague reminded him that in Asia starting a speech with humility would be beneficial, based on the Chinese manner of humble behaviours, such as by apologizing in advance in case the audience did not appreciate his talk. The speaker preferred to open with an anecdote about cultural differences, tying-in to the theme of the speech. So he compromised, by explaining the cultural difference, then apologizing for not having any jokes to relate; this approach went over well.
With the ever increasing infusion of technology, what is termed ‘virtual technology’ (such as Skype) is now part and parcel of tools used by presenters. This provides access to smaller groups, so the likelihood of cross-cultural exposure is enhanced. Thus, possibilities for cultural faux pas, implicit when speaking to a group, has the added dimension implicit in using technology. While lesser degrees of technology have been part of delivery techniques for many years – from microphones to PowerPoint projections – the modern speaker needs to be comfortable with this broader evolution.
One such ingredient, the camera, provides minimal feedback to the speaker. Especially with humour, where an awareness of audience feedback is crucial, such devices can interfere with measuring cultural acceptance; it’s suggested that the presentation should be tested first in a live setting. The cultural aspect may not be fully anticipated, but at least one is better prepared.
Visual tools such as PowerPoint have rules of thumb to be effective, such as limiting words or detail on slides; but also care is needed in the uses of language and images. There’s a balancing act: on the one hand, adding local flavour and contact, and on the other, displaying cultural sensitivity. Therefore, if telling a joke, cultural appropriateness needs to be a filter.
Response to a presentation is not influenced by slight spelling differences (such as Canadian/British our, vs. American or, as word endings) nearly as much as using words which themselves have culturally different meanings. Expressions may have no meaning at all in other cultures; clichés can be an obvious example. Acronyms and abbreviations may easily be problematic within a culture, let alone involving others.
Images should reflect religious or political sensitivities. The use of colours may be a factor: red is generally more favoured in Asia than green or yellow, especially in southeast Asia. Even text and graphics have varied acceptance: in Asia, symbols and images are favoured over text, while in continental Europe the use of bullet points is deemed effective.
Insofar as language spoken, while many around the world have some understanding of English, presenters need to be cognizant of audience members for whom this may be their second or third language. Speaking more slowly can help. Where possible, use words of fewer syllables; avoid words which don’t translate well.
Be aware that feedback in some cultures involves direct response, in others it’s silence.
The style of delivery can also be important. In some countries, such as in western Europe, the use of irony in humour is uncommon and therefore not well understood. Sarcasm is not appreciated in Latin America, but is popular in India and Israel. Self-deprecation is acceptable humour in the West but not in Asia. Physical humour works better in some places than others.
As the author concludes, “…no amount of skill will ensure the success of a joke or humorous anecdote if the content and style are culturally inappropriate.”
The successful 21st century presenter needs to be adept at mixing humour with culture, while also managing ‘virtual’ technology, or at least making proficiency an ongoing goal.