Humor Across Cultures

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I landed here in Sao Paulo, Brazil on Wednesday morning for a week of relaxation and a little bit of work. When I landed, I had in my inbox an email from a fellow humor speaker from Norway, Piotr Pluta. He was sharing with me his recent TEDx talk, An Intercultural Guide to Humor.

It’s a particularly apt talk for me to watch given that I’ll be speaking about humor on Monday to a group of Brazilian employees here on Monday. In the talk, Piotr makes a number of great points, a couple which stood out to me:

  1. When you say someone has a “good” sense of humor it usually means they share your sense of humor.
  2. Humor has an incredible ability to connect people and shorten the gap between two individuals who may not otherwise know each other.
  3. When you feel left out of a joke, it can seem even more isolating as people are having fun without you.

So, how do you take advantage of #2, while avoiding #3, all while getting people to say #1? It goes back to the A of the Humor MAP = audience. In particular, it’s important to understand:

  • What does the audience know? This includes how much of your language they understand, what references will they get, and what topics will be most important to them.
  • What does the audience expect? This helps you break those expectations in a humorous way.
  • What does the audience need? This helps you make sure that, at least in the workplace, you are using humor with purpose (even if that purpose is just to get to know someone better).

Though every situation is different, a great starting point for intercultural humor is images. Not only is a picture worth a thousand words, those words are in whatever language the audience speaks.

Have your own intercultural humor tips (or stories)? Feel free to share them back!

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