Public Speaking Course:
International Colors of Humor
It is your responsibility to know about and acknowledge parts of the audience that come from
different ethnic backgrounds, since audiences in America are becoming more and more culturally
diverse. If you
are speaking in a different country, it is vitally important for you
to find out about the local customs and types of humor that are appreciated
in that country. International situations are covered in my public
speaking course to help you in your pre-program research.
An audience's response to humor can vary greatly across different cultures; for
example some cultures
like the color purple, some like red, others blue or green. Pay close attention to this fact of
and different sets of humor triggers. This 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 proper etiquette and customs that will make you
a welcome public speaker anywhere you go.
If you are not familiar with your intended audience, during your
research you might ask the program coordinator, 'How diverse is your group? Or do you have members
from other countries?' The answers to these questions will help you
plan your strategy for connecting with a particular
I was 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, but
wanted to include them somehow in my presentation. What
I did know was the Dunkin' Donut store near by my house was owned and run
by Asian Indians. That was a good reason to drop in, down a few
do some research, which will always
fill your mind, and sometimes fill your belly. I told the owner what I was trying to accomplish and he was glad to
help me out. 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 with there avid interest. Connection is an important skill learned in
my public speaking course, and that means a human connection, not an internet
If your local donut shop isn't run by the correct nationality needed for
your next presentation, don't worry. There are other sure-fire ways 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 in your program.
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 ethnic
you can always call their embassy. I have personally called our State Department,
The World Bank, Voice of America and many other public agencies to get
information to use in my presentation. 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.
When presenting to foreign audiences you must check your humor carefully
during your research so you don't accidentally offend someone from a
different ethnicity. In other countries you may hear people openly joking on television or in public
about subjects that would be shocking 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 going to be presenting. 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 presentation that would offend people in your
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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?
Sometimes your mistakes can turn out to be funny. Hermine Hilton, the well known
memory expert, tells of a presentation she did in Nigeria where she tried
to pronounce the names of members of the audience and innocently added
a sexual innuendo. She said everyone was falling on the floor with laughter.
Most foreign audiences do appreciate your effort to speak their
Here's a few more international tips I talk about during my public
1. 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.
2. 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
3.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)
The book I previously mentioned has a ton of tips that will help
keep the audience on your side when you attend presentations 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,
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.
No matter what the audience's ethnic background or culture,
you will learn that cartoons and comic strips are the most widely 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 simply hold up the cartoon and 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 all of the world. Newsstands in large metropolitan areas usually
periodicals, or you may find them in large libraries. It's a good idea
to collect cartoons and comic strips when you travel so you have
a ready supply when you need one for a presentation.
Be careful about what you select for your cartoons though. 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 and not at all funny. 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 tends to be different in most areas of the world even if the country
is English speaking based. You will learn that as your skills extend
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, 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. 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 of the humor you normally use
and try to find words that might cause problems. 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 your speaking
because of interpretation. 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 presenters 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. The audience thought it was hilarious.
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 comedic 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 don't usually 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 even have different standard paper sizes
that use two hole punches instead of the three we traditionally use. 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. 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 ever use self-effacing humor during your
presentation because it is not well received like 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 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.