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International Colors of Humor

Because audiences in the United States are becoming more culturally diverse, it is your responsibility to be know of and acknowledge significant portions of the audience that come from differing backgrounds. If you are speaking in a different country it is especially important for you to find out about local customs and types of humor that are appreciated in that country. Using the skills you  learn in my public speaking course in this way can be compared to the artist gathering tubes of paint to brush on canvass; likewise the audience is the canvass and you are the artist who must paint using your words.

The response to humor is vastly different for most cultures, some cultures like purple, some like red, others blue or green. Pay close attention to this fact of differing mindsets and differing sets of humor triggers, will give you a greater 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 presenter anywhere you go.

If you are not familiar with your intended audience, during your preprogram research you might ask, 'How diverse is your group? Or do you have members from other countries?' The answers to these questions will help you plan your public speaking strategy for connecting with a particular audience.

I was doing my planning for a speech in Baltimore, Maryland and found out that twenty-five percent of the audience was Asian Indian. I knew nothing about the Indian culture and didn't have long to plan. What I did know was the Dunkin' Donut store near my home was owned and run by Indians. That was a good excuse to stop in, down a few eclairs, and do some  research, which will always fill your mind, and sometimes fill your belly. I told the proprietor what I was trying to accomplish and he was glad to help. Out of all the information he gave me about humor in India, I only used one line. That was all it took to connect. The line was, 'I want to tell all my new Indian friends I'm sorry Johnny Lever couldn't make it.' 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.

If your local donut shop isn't run by the appropriate nationality for your next speaking engagement, don't worry. There are other sure-fire 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 the U.S., seek out members of the nationality to whom you are speaking. If you don't know anyone from that ethnicity, 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 on how to create a connection in doing my public speaking pre-speech research. Just tell the receptionist you want to speak to someone from the country of interest. Don't forget to tell them you want to converse in English.

In Hong Kong you would never call someone by putting your hand out and curling your index finger back and forth. Why? Read on.

When speaking to foreign audiences you must check your humor carefully during your research so you don't 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. From my public speaking course  you learn that doesn't mean you can attempt to joke about the same subjects in your presentation.

Even if your speaking humor is OK  you need to become familiar with other customs in the country in which you are speaking. Customs are quite 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 that gives you a fun look at 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 just a few serious mistakes that could easily be made during a speaking engagement that would offend:

1. In Columbia if you wanted to show the height of an animal 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? 

2. 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.

3. 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.

Here's a few more international tips I talk about in my public speaking course:

1. 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 boring- really.

2. 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.

3. 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.'

The book I previously mentioned has hundreds 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 'Culturgram' is a four page newsletter that gives you an easy to understand overview of the country of your choice. It includes customs and common courtesies, along with information about the people and their lifestyle. References 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.


Regardless of one's nationality and culture, you learn that cartoons and comic strips are the most universally accepted format for humor. A good resource is Witty World International Cartoon Magazine by Creators Syndicate Phone: (310) 337-7003. If you are speaking to a small group you can hold up the magazine or pass it around. If you want to use the cartoon or comic strip in a visual way, 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 cities usually have foreign periodicals, or you may find them in large libraries. As part of your "palette of paints" of your public speaking skills, it might be fun to collect cartoons and comic strips when you travel so you have a ready supply when you need one for a speech.

Be careful about your selection of 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 understood in most areas of the world and is considered disrespectful. This is an important lesson to remember from your public speaking course.

Other forms of visual humor that transcend most cultural barriers are juggling and magic. I don't do either, but good resources are available in your library also.  Speaking With Magic is a book by Michael Jeffreys that not only teaches you simple tricks, but gives you the points you can 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 is different in most areas of the world even if the country is English based. You learn that as your skills extends internationally. Highly tested humor that would work anywhere in the U.S. may fall flat in another country simply because the audience doesn't understand one of the words. For example, in Australia, public speaking 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 won't laugh. (And if you used the word "syndicate" in America, folks would not understand, unless it was an Italian-American audience, and half the audience would be afraid to laugh.) You meet people who are "metric", most other countries will not relate easily if you mention miles per gallon or miles per hour. You should avoid speaking about seasons, sports figures or celebrities that don't have world-wide name recognition. Rethink all humor you normally use and try to find 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 using translators, humor is tougher because timing and word play don't always translate well. You might have to slow down considerably because of interpretation. Some speakers use half sentences to keep up the pace. This is very difficult and requires practice, but practice is what renowned artists on stage in music and theater do.

Speakers have been known to have fun with interpreters (of course, I would never do this). An unnamed speaker I know purposely mumbled to his interpreter to see what would happen. The interpreter mumbled back. Then the speaker mumbled again. It was hilarious. You can bet the audience was having a fine time laughing.

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, consider the "New York Nel" or the Southern Belle .

Art Gliner, a long- time humor trainer, gave me this tip: He learns 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.

A few additional tips from around the world are:

* In general, Asians tend not to show excitement. There is an exception. They want to have fun while they learn. Be sure to take lots of small gifts to give out and be prepared to receive some too.

* Do not expect standing ovations when speaking in public in Australia. It doesn't seem to be part of their culture.

* Remember -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. Technical conversions are obvious, speech conversions are glorious when planned in your public speaking preparation.

* South of the border people don't like us to refer to ourselves as Americans. When using your public speaking skills we must 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 which is well received in American culture. Actually, while they like fun, the Japanese don't like humor in seminars at all. Conversely, Australians love humor.

The point in becoming a master of your public speaking skills 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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