Braving the Cross-Cultural Humour Divide

Humour can help to diffuse tension, break the ice or create camaraderie. However, frequently humour can get lost in translation when crossing the cultural divide.


After Christmas I enjoyed a short holiday on the Great Ocean Road, Victoria with my family. As we were enjoying a walk along one of the many beaches I couldn’t help but overhear a largely Asian tour group meandering along the beach close by.

I overheard the tour guide tell a joke. To me the joke sounded quite amusing, but judging by the immediate reaction (or rather lack of) of his tour group, not many other people did! Aside from a few polite giggles there was mostly silence and looks of confusion. My immediate thought was that people probably didn’t understand the joke. Maybe there were language and accent difficulties, humour differences, etc.

Cross-Cultural Challenges

Humour across cultures is very difficult. Aside from the lack of a shared background, there are many subtle nuances, common phrases and local references in humour and joke telling that can very easily fall flat when told to foreigners.

When we engage in humour, we unconsciously make assumptions that our audience/s are similar to ourselves and will therefore receive the humour in a manner that we intend it to be heard.

There is no doubt that communicating humour is one of the most difficult cross-cultural communication challenges that exists. In countries such as Japan, humour rarely crosses hierarchical borders and wouldn’t be appropriate in formal contexts; in other cultures such as Australia, humour can be appropriate in these settings and viewed as a means of reducing tension and balancing power inequities.

Humour Tips

So how do we know if our humour will be received as funny, misunderstood or offensive in the context of no shared knowledge and background with our audience? Here are some basic guidelines:

  • It is essential that you have a high level of cultural and language awareness, sensitivity and understanding
  • As a general guide, I recommend avoiding sarcasm and jokes, rather wit and self-deprecation can often be safer options
  • Observe others – how they deliver and receive humour. Take note of the context, seniority, facial expressions, body language, etc.

I often remind my expat coaching clients that when they find themselves understanding local humour and sharing in it, they are well on their way to true cultural immersion.

Although there are cultural barriers to the shared understanding of humour, keep in mind that even within our own cultures what is considered funny and not funny vary enormously. I admired the tour guide I mentioned earlier because although his joke may not have received many laughs, he was brave enough to have a go. I would guess that he probably had some insight that the content couldn’t be offensive and was making a genuine attempt to create a relaxed, light-hearted environment for the group.

While we need to be cautious when using humour in cross-cultural settings, I urge you to not be too discouraged because humour can be a great way to build relationships and begin to really understand your cross-border colleagues and clients.