Humour is an international language. The world’s biggest selling comedy franchises are Mr Bean and Benny Hill who owe their successes to the power of slapstick and saucy seaside postcard humour. I am not suggesting that you adopt a funny walk into a business meeting and emulate Monty Python but there are a few simple tips I have learnt along the way about how to use humour and break the ice.
Laughter is universal and whatever the culture, there is always something funny for you to communicate about. Food is a particularly popular subject as regional delicacies vary. Sheep’s eyes may be every day fayre in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, and frog’s legs a delicacy in France but us brits are famous for our reserve when it comes to menu choices. Maybe it’s time to introduce your overseas guests to the delights of jellied eels or whelks?! Not so weird now are we? Next time you are presented with something unpalatable by your foreign hosts, have the names of a few unusual British food delicacies up your sleeve and threaten to return the favour when they pay you a return visit.
Once you are in the boardroom it is best to be cognisant of your surroundings and avoid fussing. Nobody takes a fiddler seriously. Look like you know what is going on even if you do not have a clue.
One of my favourite ‘laugh out loud’ visual comedy sketches takes this to a whole different level. It is from the film ‘Johnny English Reborn’ with Rowan Atkinson playing a hapless secret agent who gets everything wrong. He attends a meeting around a boardroom table and grapples with the height of his chair which first goes first up and up and then down and down until he almost disappears from view with side splitting effect borrowing heavily on his Mr Bean persona! Let this be a lesson to us all – sit where you are sat, don’t play with knobs (inanimate or otherwise…) and engage. Even if you don’t actually understand a word they are saying you can pick up a lot by nuance – anger, frustration, agreement and pleasure.
In the UK we like to boast the most ‘intellectual’ humour with satire at its core. Every culture will have its own version of satire which pokes fun at the news and challenges the system. This can be offensive as depicted by the recent horrific events in Paris with the slaughter of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. Translated into a business context, how you tell ‘em could make or break the deal. Check out what you can and cannot get away with and unless you are certain that a well placed anecdote will bring a smile to the face of your hosts, leave it out! Remember that culture is a major reflection of the society you are doing business with so as more women are sitting on boards and occupying powerful roles in public and political life our voices are increasingly heard and (maybe) understood. This results in more representation overseas and we now have to adapt our shtick to ensure that our female presence is not undermined or trivialised. Even more importantly we do not want to put women in less open societies in jeopardy.
Angela Merkel the German Chancellor does a great job of combining her power with a twinkle in her eye! She commands respect on a global leadership platform and there is very few references to her appearance when it comes to the media. My guess is that she uses her humour amongst her peers to equalize her status and draw attention to the issues she wants to raise.
A sense of humour is not a given, and then being able to communicate with humour across the boundaries of language and culture is an even bigger challenge for men as well as women. Taking on board the simplicity of visual humour like slapstick is not going to win you any prizes at the next international board meeting but watching and listening instead of looking at your mobile will ensure that you stay in the room. Social media crosses boundaries but will never replace the art of visual and verbal communications. Even if you do not have time to fully learn the lingo, research what your hosts or visitors laugh about in their country as humour can always be shared.
Lynne is the founder and chief executive of Funny Women. Follow her on Twitter at @funnywomenlynne