Many years ago, while speaking to a group of Thai delegates on a trip through the Rockies, I told my favourite grizzly joke. The interpreter spent 3 minutes translating my hilarious joke, where upon the group gazed at me with an eerie collective silence. Their facial expressions seemed to be saying, “Is this man mentally deranged?” The interpreter furtively whispered in my ear, “They don’t understand. I’ll tell them a funny joke.” And so ended my first foray into trans-cultural humor.

Practicing “safe humor” is the golden rule of adding humor to any presentation. When speaking to audiences of other nationalities and cultures, the rule becomes doubly important. In fact, the Foreign Service Journal Magazine advises: “Next to treason, making an inappropriate joke may rank as the 2nd most taboo practice in diplomacy.” When it comes to professional speaking, it could well be the number one taboo.

Different cultures have different styles of humor, so be prepared before treading blindly into uncharted humor seas. Japanese audiences don’t enjoy any sort of humor that directs attention towards or embarrasses another person. British humor often focuses on slapstick and farce. The Swiss have a very gentle, understated approach to humor. Subtle differences can even appear within a country. Germans from southern regions are typically more gregarious than their more stoic northern counterparts.

Also be aware of how different nationalities react to humor. Japanese audiences rarely laugh out loud. Malaysians sometimes laugh to mask their anger (probably not the kind of laughs you should be going for). And in some eastern European countries where comedy clubs are opening for the first time, comedians are discovering that 20 minutes of silence doesn’t necessarily mean they bombed. Some cultures simply don’t laugh out loud in public.

Here are a few rules of the road for practicing safe humor overseas:

  • Avoid jokes; focus on humorous stories that have a universal appeal
  • Avoid any sort of humor that pokes fun at their country or customs, instead look for humor from your own country/customs
  • Practice the number one rule of safe humor – laugh at yourself first
  • Discuss any concerns about humor with the translator and/or organizers before hand
  • Visual humor (funny props, costume parts, exaggerated body language) works well when speaking to audiences of different language
  • Read up on the humor customs of the country you’ll be speaking in. For some general
  • information check out Do’s and Taboos of Humor Around the World, by Roger E. Axtell.

Now having cautioned you (and perhaps scaring the humor right out of you), do keep in mind that laughter truly is a universal language. So the next time you speak internationally pack along your sense of humor – just make sure it suits the audience (and fits inside your luggage).