Eisenhower once said “A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” He might have been right, but that only applies when local and customary norms are respected and known to all involved.
Most of us are familiar with the saying “when in Rome ….” This means that what’s funny in Italy is not necessarily funny in Brazil. Anyone who works with clients from different cultures or delivers presentations abroad learns this very quickly.
I was raised in a Mediterranean culture where jokes and humor are part of daily life. Coming to the United States and using the same tactics was a bomb because what made a joke funny in my native environment - an aspect of a local context- sometimes turned into a kiss of death in my new environment as the context was different.
This article covers few aspects of cultural differences that professionals working abroad or with a client base outside of their home country may find useful be it face to face conversation or virtual meeting.
Are you speaking my language? The fundamental element of every culture is language. It is always important to remember that individuals from other cultures do have their own language and may have a second language they use on daily basis. Majority tends to speak English with a version we call “Global English” learned in school. Therefore. Your top priority when communicating with a non English speaker is to be understood. The best way to do this is to speak slowly enough that your audience or client is receiving the correct information you are trying to convey to him/her. Do not hesitate to ask for feedback. You may find that some cultures differ from others in the way they interact with you. Some will have no problem saying or expressing what they think and feel such as in Germany, Netherlands or Belgium, others may remain silent – Most of the middle East, Arabian Peninsula, South America, and part of Asia. It is your job to interpret what that silence means. When speaking virtually, the situation can be slightly different where you may not receive any type of feedback at all. Therefore, always speak slowly and allow your listeners the time they need to translate the English you speak into what they’re able to understand. Words of caution: opt for fewer syllables when you can and always avoid acronyms and local terms that don’t translate well. Develop a system where you can “neutralize” and weed out anything that won’t easily be understood especially when using humor. Nothing kills a joke faster than listeners not understanding what you’re saying.
The technology technique: In today’s world, many professionals find themselves not only making face-to-face presentations but virtually doing it as well. This can sometimes be challenging. Therefore, additional rules may apply in ensuring a successful delivery. First, get very familiar with the program you are using; be it Skype or WebEx. Check your microphone, projections, caneras and lights beforehand. If you are doing a presentation to a large group, try to find a tool that will allow you to see the entire group and not some of it. This is very important to get a feel of your audience level of interest or perhaps feedback. If you are using images through power point or slide presentation, your chosen words and images have to be culturally appropriate or locally accepted -free of offensive references when using humorous anecdote or jokes. One more thing that may be overlooked many times is the spelling or the meaning of words. The earlier one may not pause a distraction but the latter can (e.g., “fanny” in the United States, the word refers to one’s rear end , but in England it’s called “bum” and “fanny” refers to female private parts. Another issue can occur when using terms or clichés with no equivalent meaning in other cultures such as “ step up to the plate”, “ball park figure” “ spend a penny” in England or “ “ do the needful” in the Indian subcontinent. Care should also be considered when using acronyms and abbreviations that are specific to only one culture or industry (e.g., “asap”, “bbr”, “Gotcha”, “ETA” or “CYA”.
Scrub all your graphics from culturally inappropriate images: a good start would be any type of religious or political images. Any past historical events should be avoided at all times. I would never show images of Hiroshima to a Japanese, a holocaust to a Jewish, or a picture of the prophet Mohamed to a Muslim audience. Many of us remember what happened in September of 2005 when a Danish cartoonist depicted Islam through a childlike style standing on what appeared to be heaven screaming “stop, we’re running out of virgins” after seeing a smoking suicide bombers. The pictures seemed innocuous to the Danes, but not to Muslims. It took many diplomatic moves to calm the uproar. Inappropriate jokes accompanied by offensive images can stir up emotions you may not be able to control.
The use of colors can also have an impact on your presentation as they can carry a cultural meaning ( E.g., red is good in Asia, Green is good in the Arabian Peninsula, Orange can be meaningful in Africa, but green and yellow are not good to use in Thailand or the Philippines). Furthermore, the degree to which text and graphic are used can vary culturally. In Asia for example, the use of symbols, numbers and pictures is much more appreciated than text or words on a screen, while in Europe, the use of bullet-pointed, logically connected text that represents concrete ideas leading to a final conclusion is highly effective.
Is your Style in alignment with the local culture? I mentioned I was from a Mediterranean culture where sarcasm is considered super funny because of the caustic; in your face, over the top nature of the culture. In South America, that same style can be very offensive depending on the particular country or culture. Working with Anglo-Saxons can be very different if you are not used to the style in using humor, as it is more irony based on the ability to use the meaning of a word or a phrase to its opposite intent.
When working with Asians, using the American style of humor may not be a good idea in giving a speech or a presentation. Americans are taught to use their own character, their misfortune, and make them the butt of the joke. Many Asian cultures may find that very uncomfortable and instead of generating a laugh, they may generate empathy. What’s funny in New York may not be that funny in KualaLampur!
Humor and jokes carry culture. If not well understood it can travel poorly across nations and languages. Your best practice will be to fully familiarize yourself with it before you start any type of humorous talk.
by: Mona L. Cherkaoui