Understanding international humour

I had a lot of fun in Munich this week with a multicultural group. As well as a lot of learning on leading global virtual teams there was also a lot of laughter. There are always amusing stories to share about working internationally, and one of the enjoyable parts of our job is experiencing humour from different parts of the world.

British humour is recognized in most places as particularly distinct but it has some challenges in translation. A lot of jokes require us to share the cultural context to get the double meanings or references and these generally don’t translate well. Funny stories from real life often do travel well.

A particular problem with me as an international trainer is my British tendency towards using irony. In my culture, jokes are often delivered with a straight face, or we say the opposite of what we really mean. Whilst this can be funny to other Brits you wouldn’t put the principle “say the opposite of what you really mean, but don’t show it on your face” on a list of good cross-cultural communication tips!

We were talking about this in the workshop this week, a couple of people missed a couple of my jokes and it became a source of even more humour as the workshop went on. One British lady who had been living in Germany for 10 years acted as a “joke interpreter”, raising a hand and making a signal when a joke had been made. I started to signal the jokes myself by telling people they were coming and when they were finished.

So, in the spirit of international communication I offer you the British joke pyramid.

Graphic pyramid saying "joke is coming", "this is the joke", "that was the joke"

You can cut this out and fold it into a pyramid shape. Show side one – “The joke is coming ” –  just before you tell your joke. Then show side two –  “This is the joke” – as you tell it; and when you finished simply move to side three  – “The joke is finished.”

It’s also hard to signal humour in writing, and an ironic email may give precisely the opposite message to the one you intended – so for the sake of clarity I mean this suggestion in fun!

  • If you still don’t get a laugh, then you definitely need better material.
  • If you have a British colleague who you often don’t understand because of the use of humour you can send them the pyramid as a gentle hint.

Taking the time to explore each other’s humour is a really enjoyable part of working globally: take the time to learn how it works in different parts of the World.

Why Not….?




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