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Skip to 0 minutes and 0 seconds There’s this one example which really sticks in my mind because it has such a big impact on me when I think about it. And this is about 10 years ago, I found myself presenting to a group of our leaders from the Nordics– so I think it was in Finland. And I presented the same presentation that I had just done in London, which was, I thought, very funny and had lots of people laughing throughout and entertained as well as trying to get a point across in a lighthearted way– but getting serious points across in a lighthearted way. And it also, I thought, was one of the best things I’d ever done.

Skip to 0 minutes and 41 seconds So people in London were really impressed by the ideas and really wanted engage immediately afterwards– had lots of questions. When I did the same presentation in Finland, during the presentation there were no questions. During my jokes there was no laughter. At the end of it there were no questions at all and no discussion. And I felt that I had been a complete failure. So if I rethink how would I do that today– well, today I would spend a lot more time understanding the audience, understanding their culture– the individuals who will be there as well as the culture. And understanding that having humour in a business presentation isn’t necessarily what you would do if you were presenting there.

That's not funny

Humour certainly polarises opinions, which maybe just goes to show how careful we need to be. It can be an ice-breaker when we’re operating in different cultures and equally the quickest way to cause Cultural Intelligence to fail.

In this video Riaz Shah, Global Talent Leader - Assurance Services, EY LLP gives am example of a presentation he gave to two different audiences and what his observations of the experience were.

It can clearly cause problems when senses of humour don’t match, or jokes aren’t (or can’t be) shared. The stakes are raised even more when the humour has a specific target; when teasing tips into satire; when the laughter hurts someone.

Alan Rosling is former director of Tata Sons, a businessman who grew up in Britain and has been working in India for many years. His take on humour is:

  1. Be careful: jokes don’t travel

  2. We have to laugh with people, and not at them

  3. Find something that people can laugh about together

  4. Teasing is good – but not until you know people well

  5. Best of all: laugh at yourself.

Yes, you get it wrong all the time, but the most common mistake with humour is to go too fast. Gauge the person a bit first – even if it is only quickly. I made a mistake with my visa application when I was going to Vietnam. I put the wrong date on it. When I arrived, I joked with the immigration officer that I was so keen on Vietnam, I had come early. She sorted it all out for me there and then as we laughed together: again, at me.

There’s no simple answer. But humour carries a large sign that reads ‘Proceed with extreme caution’.

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This video is from the free online course:

Developing Cultural Intelligence for Leadership

Common Purpose