Don’t try any funny business

A man walks into a library, he goes up to the desk and says to the librarian, “Hi, I’d like a cheeseburger, a large fries and a milkshake please.” The librarian has a confused look on her face and says, “this is a library!” The man says, “Oh sorry,” and then whispers “I’d like a cheeseburger, a large fries and a milkshake please.” This is my favourite joke.

By Jim Morris, Lead consultant at Schouten Global

This article was first published in Dutch in the TVOO magazine. The original can be found published in the June version of TvOO called “Pret”.


It ticks all the boxes of what I think a joke should be. It works using subtle irony and the realisation of mismatch between a concept and a situation.

Whether we have a favourite joke or not, jokes are being told all over the world. Humour across the globe is about social bonding and cohesion. And, it doesn’t matter which culture you are from it takes less muscles to smile than to frown. So “having a laugh” with someone from another culture should be easy, right?

Well maybe not that easy. My library joke may not tick all the boxes for everyone. Humour and what constitutes “funny” is different around the world. If you are working with and traveling to different cultures, be aware that what is hilarious for you may not be hilarious for the other person. In fact, if in doubt, if you are not sure how your joke will be received, then don’t do it. Humour is subtle and there is a delicate balance between it working in your favour or souring a negotiation, leaving people confused and offended.  

Humor used in a proper way can enhance the learning or motivation of individuals or teams. Employees who laugh together have been shown to be more creative and collaborative. As a result, productivity and profit can increase. If we look specifically at leadership, those leaders who include appropriate humour and jokes at work appear to gain more support from employees and are generally seen as better at motivating employees.

The flip side of the benefits of appropriate, well-judged humour is the unavoidable negative effect when we get it wrong. I would hope that we can all agree it is not wise to tell jokes which cross a line of decency such as mocking disability, race or gender. Even so we still tread a fine line between what is appropriate and what is inappropriate humour. At the risk of sounding like a scratched record, if you are not sure, don’t tell your joke. Misplaced inappropriate humour, can act as a signal to people that it’s OK to break the rules in negative ways. Leaders who use aggressive humor, such as teasing staff members or telling dirty jokes are more likely to encourage employees to behave badly. These can reduce a person’s sense of work engagement. A joke may start out as “just a joke”, but joking at someone else’s expense even if they aren’t present—sends a strong message defining who the “insiders” and “outsiders” are. If you are the “outsider”, such humor can undermine your sense of self-worth, commitment to the organisation and performance. Our ability to learn or stay motivated is quickly lost as we reel from the embarrassment of being laughed at to the realization that we are the outsider. Inappropriate humour will make people feel excluded. The moment this happens we lose the wisdom or perspective they can bring to any situation, be it at work, in the classroom or social settings.

There is also one more painful irony for the “outsider”. The person being laughed at falls into a strange situation of being insulted and then told not to feel insulted. In fact, they are likely to be asked, “Hey, can’t you take a joke?” implying that they are overly sensitive and should lighten up. 

Accidental Humour

Often inappropriate humour is deliberate, a conscious sneer at someone or something. They are jokes that just go too far. But what about moments when you are not trying to be funny and your words get lost in translation? The advertising world has plenty of examples where something starts out as an attempt to motivate people to buy a product before turning decidedly awkward. Things become unintentionally funny for a split second before prompting either confusion or hurt. It is certainly not creating the intended motivation to buy.

Two of my favourite examples of this are:

  1. The Amercian brand of toothpaste Pepsodent tried to sell its product in a distinct area in Southeast Asia by emphasizing that it "whitens your teeth." They found out that the local natives chew betel nuts to blacken their teeth which they find attractive.
  2. Pepsico advertising Pepsi in Taiwan with the ad "Come Alive With Pepsi" had no idea that it would be translated into Chinese as "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead."

Know my culture, understand my comedy

As an Englishman humour is very important to me. I like to laugh with people rather than at people, and mostly to laugh at myself. Self-deprecation is the default humour in England. However I have learnt that in China, making fun of yourself is not considered to be funny at all. My self-deprecation during a key note speech in Beijing only led to blank and confused looks on the faces of my Chinese audience. In China, there is no humour in your own misfortune. And so I learnt that, whereas laughter is universal, what humour means and what is funny, does differ per culture. It is also worth noting that in many Asian cultures laughter can be a sign of embarrassment rather than a response to humor as it typically is say in the US.

Jokes will generally rely on a cultural understanding and being familiar with the local language, news, sports, entertainment and politics. If you do not know about these then it is difficult to get the joke.   I have lived in the Netherlands for over twenty years and yet it is only now that I can really appreciate Van Kooten en De Bie, Jiskefet or an oudejaarsconference. I did not grow up in the Netherlands and so for years I failed to connect the dots on what was funny about these shows. They referenced a shared context about the Netherlands which I did not have. During any awkward moment of “knippen en plakken” (arts and crafts, red.) my Dutch family and friends would always say, “Creatief met kurk!?”  A reference to Arjan Ederveen’s show which had everybody except me laughing and nodding in joint understanding.   

I grew up with the wacky yet sophisticated humour of Monty Python and visual comedy of Tommy Cooper. Later I would discover alternative comedy, which sprung up in the UK as a sort of antidote to Thatcher’s Britain. Shows like The Young Ones, (the punk rock of comedy), Not the Nine O’Çlock News and Blackadder.

I also grew up being told that classic stereotype, the Germans do not have a sense of humour. I remember thinking as a young boy, “the Germans don’t have sense of humour? Is that some kind of joke!?” Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course the Germans have a sense of humour. It is just different from my sense of humour. Ironically the German comedian Mario Barth still holds the record for the largest live comedy audience. On 12 July 2008 Barth established this world record in the category, "live-comedy with the largest audience", as he performed in front of 70,000 people at Olympic Stadium in Berlin, breaking the previous record of 15,900 comedy-visitors held by the American comedian Chris Rock at a show in London.

So we cannot say that certain cultures do not have a sense of humour. What we can say is different cultures have a different approach to humour. As well as reflecting culturally shared values, comedy reflects our aspirations and our sense of what we would like to find funny. For example I find the UK comedy “Allo Allo” cringeworthy, yet it is very popular amongst many of my Dutch friends. It probably says more about me, liking to think that British humour should be a bit more sophisticated, rather than just showing exaggerated stereotypes of French and German characters. This feeling extends to Benny Hill, who most of my English friends would now see as outdated and sexist. And yet at the time in 1980’s Britain, when a new climate of political correctness had sidelined his show, Benny Hill remained immensely popular in many other countries, including Spain, Cuba, France and China. This is perhaps a reminder that the physical form of slapstick comedy manages to cross the language barrier. In the case of Benny Hill, the content and acceptability of that humour was not accepted everywhere. However one example of slapstick which works without offence throughout most of the world is Mr Bean. The humourously embarrassing events of Rowan Atkinson’s clumsy and unfortunate hero have been successful in almost 200 countries. He is based on one of my favourite visual comedians, the marvelous Frenchman, Jacques Tati and his character Monsieur Hulot. Both Bean’s and Hulot’s comedy seems to travel well.

Around the world in 80 jokes?

Unfortunately, this article would become far too long if we were to go for the full Phileas Fogg, however we can single out a few cultures and see how their humour differs. Cultural guru Richard Lewis reminds us that unlike Mr Bean and Mr Hulot, most humour does not travel well.

“Humour, like wine, travels badly, especially when heading East. What is hilarious for a Brit may be anathema to an Arab, the wittiest French pun is incomprehensible to a Chinese; one’s most innocent anecdote may seriously offend a Turk.” Source : Humour across Frontiers – R.D.Lewis – ISBN 0-9534398-2-8

Eastern and Central Europe tend to have jokes which center around politics. The legacy of the Soviet era in Eastern Europe can lead to a harshness in the humour. Modern history can lead to bitter jokes. My Polish friend likes to tell her favourite joke which is that when Sigmund Freud was asked, “what is the thing that comes between Fear and Sex his answer is, “fünf”.”

Whereas my English humour feels more sympathetic and less cruel, the wit that permeates a lot of  Latin humour can be brilliant but cruel. The character assassination and ridicule that Italians are capable of and the malicious wit of the French are good examples.

A Frenchman told me that this is quite a popular joke, underlining a loveless history between the French and English:

“Do you know how to save an Englishman from drowning?”



Nordic humour is generally seen as very dry. The more North you get, towards and in to Finland, with cold temperatures and darkness, the more terse and matter of fact the jokes become. My Finnish colleague at work would always have the same short response to my question; “how was your weekend?”. His response; “well I’m still breathing”.

American humour is quick and sharp. Personally I like the sketch comedy and variety of Saturday Night Live and other late shows more than the endless reels of sitcoms. However as an Englishman, I often think that Americans don’t get irony. This is of course not true. But what is true is that they don’t use it all the time. Americans don’t use it as much socially as the British. 

I use irony and sarcasm as a shield and a weapon. I avoid sincerity where possible. Instead, I show my affection for you or lack of affection through my jokes. This can stray away from the default self-deprecation and into what the English call “pulling your leg”. This is the rare occasion when the English laugh at you. It can feel uncomfortable even nasty to those not used to English humour. Understanding this was crucial when the American network NBC took the award winning British comedy The Office and created its own version for an American audience. The biggest difference between the US version and the UK version was to make the central character Michael Scott a slightly nicer guy, with a rosier outlook to life. He could still be insecure, and a bore, but he couldn’t be too mean. This is very different to the UK versions main character, David Brent, who is a merciless “leg puller”.

Asian cultures such as Japan and China need to protect “face”. The underlying rules on what is proper and correct can limit how much you make fun of others or joke about a situation. Their humour often centers around language by making intelligent puns. It also has a lot of slapstick. However the slapstick that is particularly successful in Asia will involve laughing at situations in which nobody is singled out or humiliated. This is “safe” comedy, where the characters are so far removed from reality that any loss of face is completely depersonalised.

So what to do in business situations?

I think it is fine to join in the laughter in any of the countries you visit and work with. Throw in a joke or two about your own nationality, but never theirs.

Always do your homework. When you are going to work with another culture, ask people who have already worked with that culture for some advice. Do your own reading about the culture. A little cultural awareness will let you know for example, that the Germans and Japanese will avoid jokes during actual business sessions. The Japanese fail to see any benefit in introducing humour into business. Contrary to that the British and Americans may well swap funny anecdotes, often to relieve tension during tough negotiations or simply to break the ice in a meeting. There is less fear in these cultures that people will feel matters are being trivialized or taken less seriously. However a little cultural awareness is not enough to be safe from causing offence or confusion. Just knowing that Arabs like the English can have a fine sense of self-deprecation, and Indians love satirical jokes about family and society will not always allow you to safely crack your joke during a meeting.

You need to have worked or lived in a culture for a longer time to really “get it”. As I mentioned earlier, I can now understand and appreciate Dutch comedy.  I have also lived for long periods of my life in Australia and Canada. At first Australian humour felt derisive and mocking to me. I realized much later that its colonial founding history results in much Australian humour being cynical, laughing at authority or showing a contempt of class systems. The Canadians that I met, would smile and tell me that Canada is like a bigger USA, but the people are friendlier. I certainly experienced that friendliness, but again it took time to understand their humour. The Canadians play with language, throwing puns, riddles and anecdotes into their conversation. A Canadian joke that always stuck with me is :

Man: “Doctor I keep thinking I’m a cat.”

Doctor: “When did this start?”

Man: “When I was a kitten.”  

What’s the punchline?

The Cambridge English Dictionary describes a punchline as:

the last part of a story or a joke that explains the meaning of what has happened previously or makes it funny

So what is my punchline? What is the last part of the story? Well I think it comes in 2 parts, the “line” and the “punch”.

The “line”

The “line” of thought, reasoning or even argument is that there is absolutely added value in humour. Research is exploring all kinds of aspects – from what happens in the brain regions associated with pleasure and enjoyment of humour when we ‘get’ a joke, to the cardiovascular benefits of a good laugh.

In his book, Ha! The science of when we laugh and why, cognitive neuroscientist and author Scott Weems says : “My first thought when I think about humour is it’s a great way for us to have evolved so we don’t have to hit each other with sticks.” And he is right. It’s an icebreaker and can defuse a situation. Humour is worth taking seriously! We are more likely to experience humour than emotions like fear or regret. There is value in it. Just because something is fun, doesn’t mean it’s insignificant. Whatever the culture, there is a curious alchemy that occurs when people come together specifically to laugh. They are connecting with each other in this shared experience we call life. Humour helps us validate shared experiences and reframe situations. If people from different cultures are laughing, they are almost certainly listening - meaning you can spread your message to more people.

The “punch”

The “punch”, does not need to be a knockout blow but it might have you temporarily “on the ropes”. It is accepting that the added value of humour can only be guaranteed when you understand the culture that goes with it. I could go on trying to explain how different cultures look at humour, however the conclusion is that you and I will never know it all.

Take some comfort in the knowledge that the longer you are exposed to a culture, live there or work closely with that culture, the easier it will become. Only then can you start to understand the context and where the humour originates. Until that happens be careful. When starting out, try not to use jargon, limit any idiomatic phrases and avoid sarcasm. If you are absolutely sure about the culture and your relationship with the other parties then humour is great for bonding and cohesion in your work. However if you have even the slightest doubt…don’t try any funny business.

Are you interested in learning more about cultural awareness?

Please feel free to contact Jim Morris