Public Speaking: Int’l Perspective on Humor (Part 1 of 3)

United States public speaking audiences are becoming more and more diverse. It is your responsibility as a public speaker to be aware of and acknowledge significant portions of the audience that come from differing backgrounds. If you are speaking in a different country, again, it is up to you to find out about local customs and types of humor that are appreciated in that locale. The response to humor is quite different for different cultures. Paying close attention to this fact will give you a greater chance of connecting with international audiences in and out of the U.S. You will also be more aware of etiquette and customs that will make you a welcome speaker anywhere you go.

If you are not familiar with your intended audience, in your pre- program research you might ask, ‘How diverse is your group? Or do you have members from other countries?’ The answers to these questions will help you plan your strategy for connecting with a particular audience.

I was doing my planning for a speech in Baltimore, Maryland and found out that twenty-five percent of the audience was Asian Indian. I knew nothing about the Indian culture and didn’t have long to plan. What I did know was the Dunkin’ Donut store near my home was owned and run by Indians. That was a good excuse to stop in, down a few eclairs, and do some research. I told the proprietor what I was trying to accomplish and he was glad to help. Out of all the information he gave me about humor in India, I only used one line. That was all it took to connect. The line was, ‘I want to tell all my new Indian friends I’m sorry Johnny Lever couldn’t make it.’ Johnny Lever was one of the top comedians in India. They lit up and I went on with the program.

If your local donut shop isn’t run by the appropriate nationality for your next speaking engagement, don’t worry. There are other sure-fire methods to get the information you need. If you are speaking outside the US, get the opinion of local people before you attempt to use humor. If you are speaking in the U.S., seek out members of the nationality to whom you are speaking. If you don’t happen to know any, you can always call their embassy. I’ve called our State Department, The World Bank, Voice of America and many other public agencies for information. Just tell the receptionist you want to speak to someone from the country of interest. Don’t forget to tell them you want to converse in English.

In Hong Kong you would never beckon someone by putting your hand out and curling your index finger back and forth. Why? Read on.

When speaking to foreign audiences you must check your humor carefully so you don’t accidentally offend someone. In some countries you may hear people openly joking on television or in public about subjects that would be taboo in the U.S. That doesn’t mean you can attempt to joke about the same subjects in your presentation.

Even if your speaking humor is OK, you need to become familiar with other customs in the country in which you are speaking. Customs are quite different around the world. It is easy to make mistakes when you are in a totally new environment. You’ll never get the audience to laugh if you accidentally do something offensive. A good resource that gives you a fun look at customs in other countries is the book ‘Gestures: The Do’s and Taboos of Body Language Around the World’ by Roger Axtell. This book gives lots of information on things to do and not to do in public when in a foreign country. Here’s just a few serious mistakes that could easily be made during a speaking engagement that would offend:

1. In Columbia if you wanted to show the height of an animal you would hold your arm out palm down and raise it to the appropriate height. If you are trying to show the height of a person, you do the same thing, but your palm is on edge. So, if you meant to show the height of a person, but you did it palm down as we normally would in the U.S., you would have either insulted the person by treating he or she like an animal or you would have confused your audience because they would now think that you were actually talking about an animal that had the name of a person. See how crazy this can get.

2. I’ve got another animal problem for you. In Hong Kong, Indonesia and Australia you would never beckon someone by putting your hand out and curling your index finger back and forth (like you might do to coax someone on stage with you). This gesture is used to call animals and/or ladies of the night and would be offensive to your audience.

3. In Latin American and the Middle East people stand much closer while conversing. If you were interacting with a person from one of these cultures during a public speaking engagement and you backed away to keep a normal U.S. personal space, you would be sending a very unfriendly message. Asians, however typically stand farther apart. Your understanding of this will keep you from chasing them all over the stage. Keep this in mind too if you go into the audience to interact with them. Since they are seated, you control the interpersonal space.

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Copyright © Advanced Public Speaking Institute

Tom Antion provides entertaining speeches and educational seminars. He is the ultimate entrepreneur, having owned many businesses BEFORE graduating college. Tom is the author of the best selling presentation skills book “Wake ’em Up Business Presentations” and “Click: The Ultimate Guide to Electronic Marketing.” It is important to Tom that his knowledge be not only absorbed, but enjoyed. This is why he delivers his speeches laced with great humor and hysterical jokes. Tom has addressed more than 87 different industries and is thoroughly committed to his clients’ needs.

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