Humor Can Help International Business

Can a Playful Spirit, a Light Heart, Joking and Laughter help you be successful?  Used wisely, it can help build bonds with clients that will help your practice, according to Henri de Jongste, a Lecturer at FH Dortmund University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Dortmund, Germany, author of a number of articles onHumor in International Business Contexts and member of the International Society for Humor Studies, who led a discussion at the International Business Initiative. Humor helps us get along with others, which is crucial to success with human clients. He set up a Forum on Humor in Culture and researched humor in international business to see what people laughed at. Humor can be very positive but it must be understood and appreciated because it can be more challenging in intercultural settings.

   What is funny varies among cultures. Each has different styles of irony. Investigate humor norms in a country where you will do business. The British like puns and irony with a straight face; French youths have verlan, the Austrians schmah. It is said the German joke book is the shortest in the world, yet Germans are just as humorous as anyone. Germans find humor is not often appropriate in business, their politicians rarely joke in public and self-deprecating humor does not go over well. Humor in business is rare in Japan. Outside of Amsterdam, parts of Holland share a relatively conservative, Calvinistic culture with a bible belt, which frowns upon extravagance. Yet each person in a culture is unique.  Humor is the great icebreaker, a game people play. It is being playful. The goal of playfulness is not usually material but shared relaxation and pleasure.  Jokes often involve unusual situations. Humor can create psychological closeness and bonding or relieve tension but also be used as a weapon. A sense of humor is a gift yet most of us can learn this skill. Explore the sense of what is funny and not funny with another person and build on this. Learn to gao xiao (make fun in Chinese). People often respond and want a humor part of the relationship. Canned jokes can be used but spontaneous humor in conversations can be co-constructive and invite the listener to play along in a fantasy world where odd things happen.

Humor can open a heart so there is more persuasiveness in the message. It keeps people interested. Excessive seriousness can bore a listener. Humor is linked to creativity. If it is recognized as humor, it can relieve a tense moment. Humor relieves stress. It is a nice way to begin or end a conversation. Leave them laughing.

    What makes something funny? One factor is incongruity—a non-normal development of a situation. Look for opposites. The unexpected done playfully  without too much impact on a situation can lead to laughter. Under expectations violation theory, the closer people are to you, the more lenient you are with them when they violate your expectations. Jokes can be told very seriously  or while smiling. Dutch and British humor is often told seriously. People may expect a signal something is funny. The segue—speaking faster or changing the voice—prepares the listener. Body language is a signal and so are the clothes of clowns or funny dress. A lack of signals may make the impact greater. Humor can be outrageous such as some of the Monty Python Flying Circus skits. In a takeoff on one of its skits, at the funeral of Graham Chapman, John Cleese reverently spoke softly about the deceased, stating it was great to work with him and he was in the great thereafter. Cleese repeated respectful euphemisms for his passing such as “he’s in a better place.” To a crowd of mostly Python fans he blurted out “Good riddance to the bastard! I hope he fries!” They saw humor in this. I would not recommend you state this at a funeral! Humor can also result from psychological relief.

    There are humor taboos. Usually a joke gone wrong is not the end of the world. Avoid religion. Remember the Danish cartoonists who lampooned Muhammad? Be careful about criticism. Overjoking can threaten the serious nature of a presentation. Telling unfunny jokes can lead to loss of face and embarrassment. Some people don’t “get” a joke and become confused.   Humor can also be the manifestation of power. The more powerful person has more liberty. Humor may exclude. Sarcasm expresses superiority over what is laughed at.

     People may pretend to understand a joke when they don’t. There is a human tendency to want to support each other.  Humor requires involvement and cooperation. It is an invitation to share a light heart, but the appreciation of it must be shared. Humor is a way of sharing. It requires a receptive listener. It is at its best when people co-construct humor and go along with it. It should fit the context and be understandable to be successful. It shows people think alike and builds feelings of mutual understanding and trust.

J. Michael Considine, Jr. is the chairman of the International Business Initiative.