Public Speaking Training:
International Colors of Humor
I teach in my public speaking training 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 training, 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 training you learn more ways to connect with your foreign
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
- 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 training.
- 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 training when you put forth effort, before the
speech, to learn how to best connect with your audience, where foreign or
- In 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 training 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
- 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 training 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 training 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 training.
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 training.
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 training, 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
- 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
- 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 training 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.