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Public Speaking Course: 

International Colors of Humor

I teach in my public speaking course about how American audiences are constantly becoming more culturally diverse. It is your responsibility as a public speaker to acknowledge parts of the audience that come from different cultures and backgrounds. If you are speaking in a different country it is extremely crucial that you find out about the local customs and what kind of humor will work in that country.

An audience's response to your humor will differ greatly for most cultures. For example, just using colors, some cultures like purple, some like red, others blue or green. If you pay close attention to these differing mindsets and humor triggers, you will have a better chance of connecting with international audiences in and out of the U.S. You will also be more aware of etiquette and customs that will make you a welcome speaker anywhere you go.

During your research before a presentation, it would be wise to ask, 'How diverse is your group? Or do you have members from other countries?' The answers to these questions will help you plan your presentation so you can connect with these audience members as well.

One time I planned a speech in Baltimore, Maryland and learned that twenty-five percent of the audience was Asian Indian. I didn't know a thing about the Indian culture and didn't have a whole lot of time left to plan. Lucky for me I did know of a Dunkin' Donut store near my home that was owned and run by Asian Indians. So I stopped by, downed a few donuts, and did some  research. I told the owner what my situation was and he was glad to give me some information about humor in India. I used one line out of all the information he gave me, and that was all it took to connect to the Indians in my audience. The line was, 'I want to tell all my new Indian friends I'm sorry Johnny Lever couldn't make it.' According to the Dunkin Donut owner, Johnny Lever was one of the top comedians in India. They lit up and I went on with the program. Connection is an important skill learned in my  public speaking course, and that means a human connection, not an internet connection.

Don't worry if your local donut shop isn't run by the appropriate nationality for your next presentation. There are plenty of other methods to get the information you need. If you are speaking outside the US, get the opinion of local people before you attempt to use humor. 

If you are speaking in America, you can seek out people who have the same nationality as to who you are giving the speech to. If you can't find anyone from that ethnicity to help you out, you can always call their embassy. I've called our State Department, The World Bank, Voice of America and many other public agencies for information during my preprogram research. Just tell the receptionist you want to speak to someone from the country of interest and remember to tell them you want to converse in English.

When speaking to foreign audiences you must go through your normal funny material during your research and look for anything that might accidentally offend someone. In some countries you may hear people openly joking on television or in public about subjects that would be taboo in the U.S. In my public speaking course you learn more ways to connect with your foreign audience.

Even if you find that your funny material is okay to use, you still need to understand the customs in the country where you are going to speak. Customs are very different around the world. It is easy to make mistakes when you are in a totally new environment. You'll never get the audience to laugh if you accidentally do something offensive. A good resource to find out about customs in other countries is the book 'Gestures: The Do's and Taboos of Body Language Around the World' by Roger Axtell. This book gives lots of information on things to do and not to do in public when in a foreign country. Here's some serious mistakes that could easily be made during a presentation that would offend your audience:

  • In Latin American and the Middle East people stand much closer while talking. If you were interacting with a person from one of these cultures during a speaking engagement and you backed away to keep a normal U.S. personal space, you would be sending a very unfriendly message. Asians, however typically stand farther apart. Your understanding of this will keep you from chasing them all over the stage. Keep this in mind too if you go into the audience to interact with them. Since they are seated, you control the interpersonal space, and  you can control the event and the environment to assure the message connects from using your skills learned in my public speaking course.
  • Sometimes your mistakes can be funny. Hermine Hilton, the well known memory expert, tells of a speaking engagement in Nigeria where she tried to pronounce the names of members of the audience and innocently added sexual innuendo. She said everyone was falling on the floor with laughter. Most foreign audiences do appreciate your effort to speak their language, and with your public speaking skills when you put forth effort, before the speech, to learn how to best connect with your audience, where foreign or local.
  • n Columbia if you wanted to show how tall an animal is you would hold your arm out palm down and raise it to the appropriate height. If you are trying to show the height of a person, you do the same thing, but your palm is on edge. So, if you meant to show the height of a person, but you did it palm down as we normally would in the U.S., you would have either insulted the person by treating he or she like an animal or you would have confused your audience because they would now think that you were actually talking about an animal that had the name of a person. See how crazy this can get? 
  •  I've got another animal problem for you. In Hong Kong, Indonesia and Australia you would never beckon someone by putting your hand out and curling your index finger back and forth (like you might do to coax someone on stage with you). This gesture is used to call animals and/or ladies of the night and would be offensive to your audience.

Some more tips from my public speaking course on speaking in another country:

  • You might think you are putting your audience to sleep in Japan, but don't worry. In Japan it is common to show concentration and attentiveness in public by closing the eyes and nodding the head up and down slightly. -- Then again, maybe you are so boring your putting them to sleep. (listen for snoring sounds to clue you in)
  • Applause is accepted as a form of approval in most areas of the world. In the United States the applause is sometimes accompanied by whistling. If you hear whistles in many parts of Europe, you better run because it is a signal of disapproval.
  • If you were finishing a speaking engagement in Argentina and you waved goodbye, U.S. style, the members of the audience might all turn around and come back to sit down. To them the wave means, 'Hey! Come back.' In other parts of Latin American and in Europe the same wave means 'no.'

In my public speaking course you learn that cartoons and comic strips are the most universally accepted format for humor, regardless of one's nationality and culture. A good resource is Witty World International Cartoon Magazine by Creators Syndicate Phone: (310) 337-7003. If you are speaking to a smaller group you can simply hold up the magazine or pass it around. If you want to use the cartoon or comic strip in a visual way like in an overhead or in your handouts, you may need permission from the copyright holder. Always read the caption for a foreign audience and give them time to mentally translate what you say. It may take what seems to be forever (4-6 seconds) for the idea to sink in, but even in your home country, you want to pause so to allow the audience time to laugh and enjoy your humor.

Cartoons and comic strips are seen in newspapers and magazines in most areas of the world. Newsstands in large metro cities usually have foreign periodicals, or you may find them in large libraries. In my public speaking course I teach you that it is a good idea to create a file to keep these cartoons and material for later use in a presentation.

Be careful about what you select for your cartoons. Many American cartoons would totally bomb if used outside the U.S. Much of American humor is sarcasm, or otherwise based on making fun of someone else. This type of humor is not readily understood in most cultures and is considered disrespectful. This is an important lesson to remember from your public speaking course.

The book I mentioned earlier has tons of tips that will help keep the audience on your side when you present outside the U. S. Another good and inexpensive source of international background information is the 'Culturgram' published by the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies, which is part of Brigham Young University, located in Provo, Utah.

Each of these 'Culturgram's is a four page newsletter that gives you an uncomplicated overview of the country of your choice. It includes the country's customs and common courtesies, along with information about the people and how they live. They also have references that point you toward additional study resources. Currently 'Culturgrams' are available for 118 countries, so there is a valuable resource to add to what you learn from my public speaking course.

Other forms of visual humor that cross cultural barriers are juggling and magic. Speaking With Magic is a book by Michael Jeffreys that not only teaches you simple magic tricks, but gives you points to make that relate to the trick. I got my copy from Royal Publishing, Box 1120, Glendora, CA 91740 Phone (626) 335-8069. For juggling and other magic books call or write for Morris Costume's Catalog, 3108 Monroe Road, Charlotte, NC 28205 Phone (704) 332-3304. There is a charge for the catalog, but it's worth it.

Terminology tends to be different in most areas of the world even if the country speaks English. Great humor that would work anywhere in the U.S. may bomb completely in another country simply because the audience doesn't understand one of the words. 
For example, in Australia, break out sessions are called syndicates. If you were making a joke that used the word syndicate, you may totally confuse the audience and they wouldn't know to laugh. You also have to remember that people in most other countries are "metric", and will not relate if you mention miles per gallon or miles per hour. Also avoid speaking about seasons, sports figures or celebrities that don't have world-wide name recognition. Make sure to think over all your humor carefully and try to find any problematic words. This is difficult to do by yourself. So in establishing this skill from your public speaking course, try to find a person familiar with the local culture to help you better connect.

When having to use an interpreter, humor is much harder because timing and word play don't always translate well. Usually you will need to slow down your speaking considerably when having someone interpret. Some speakers use half sentences to keep up the pace. This is very difficult and requires practice, but is worth it in the end to have the audience understand you.

Some public speakers have been known to have fun with interpreters (of course, I would never do this). I know a speaker who purposely mumbled to his interpreter to see what would happen. The interpreter mumbled back. Then the speaker mumbled again and the interpreter mumbled back again. The audience thought it was hilarious. 

A few additional tips on different cultures:

  • In general, Asians tend not to show excitement. There is an exception. They want to have fun while they learn so be sure to take lots of small gifts to hand out and be prepared to get some too.
  • Do not expect standing ovations when speaking in public in Australia. It doesn't seem to be part of their culture. They do enjoy high humor content though.
  • Don't forget that the U.S. is the foreign country when you speak outside its borders. Lots of things can be different and you should be prepared to make a conversion. Many countries have different standard paper sizes and use two hole punches instead of three. Any video you plan to use must be converted to PAL. You may need a converter to operate equipment you bring with you. 
  • South of the border people don't like us to refer to ourselves as Americans. Remember that we are not the only ones who are Americans. There are North Americans, Central Americans and South Americans.
  • In Japan you should never use self-effacing humor during your public speaking engagement. In fact, while they like fun, the Japanese don't like humor in seminars at all.

Even when the audience speaks "English" they may not be able to understand your accent. A bit tongue in cheek, the Brits say Americans speak American, not English. And Americans say folks talk "Southern" or New Yorkers talk "Street Talk", or "Boys from the 'hood" talk "Jive", so as a function of your pre-speech preparation, check with locals to see if you can be easily understood. You may have to adjust your normal delivery and rate of pitch slightly.

Art Gliner, a long- time humor trainer, gave me this tip: He learned how to say Happy New Year in the different languages represented in his audience. This always gets a laugh and the further away it is from New Years, the better. He also tells me a word of welcome, learning how to say "good day" in the native language works well too.

My public speaking course teaches that the point in becoming a master, is that every culture has its likes and dislikes when it comes to humor. They also have customs that can be very different from our own. Your knowledge in this area will help you create a connection with your international audience to convey your message. As you have seen over and over again, it is worth it because a laugh sounds the same and produces the same good feelings in any language. You know well that humor revealed by a laugh or a smile are truly shared by people of all colors, are truly the international language.

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