Humour does not travel well — not even in doing business — a fact that the net can only alter slowly, if at all

Everyone’s lens on the world --even from thousands of miles away -- has been darkened by the Charlie Hebdo killings  --

Everyone’s lens on the world — even from thousands of miles away — has been darkened by the Charlie Hebdo killings —

  1. Nothing justifies butchery – ever.
  2. The right to free speech is inseparable from the joy of being alive, and deserves to be treated as very nearly our highest value (after, or on a par with, the right to love as we choose).

But underlining these truths does nothing for the anguish of looking at the Charlie Hebdo faces no longer with us. It is so close to unbearable that post-Gutenberg has grabbed at the distraction of thinking about the massacre tangentially, in the abstract.

For instance: are human beings more or less likely to change our behaviour, customs and beliefs by being teased or mocked about them? And can we expect teasing about religion to cross yawning cultural gaps, when jokes across narrow secular divides — within the English-speaking world and in business circles far removed from religion — must be made sensitively?

David Brooks, writing in The New York Times yesterday, came to a conclusion that seemed exactly right:

The massacre at Charlie Hebdo should … remind us to be legally tolerant toward offensive voices, even as we are socially discriminating.

On the other hand, a quotation by the Daily Mail of one victim, Jean Cabut, induced shudders on behalf of the most heedless creative geniuses:

Despite all the controversy, Mr Cabut was insistent that art should not be constrained. Perhaps his most famous quote was: ‘Sometimes laughter can hurt – but laughter, humour and mockery are our only weapons.’

That word, weapon, arrests the eye. If your countrymen include Albert Camus’s L’Etranger — minorities still making the transition from feeling like strangers and outsiders — can wit mocking soul-sustaining beliefs of theirs make them feel like insiders, rather than victims of barbarous attacks? That would depend on the styles of humour they consider within the pale.

For a comparison, consider these illuminating, fine-grained perceptions about differences in the sense of humour of English-speaking nations on Culture Resource Centre, an Australian website – recommending extreme caution in doing business with jokes, internationally:

Have you ever been in this position in an overseas business meeting when you thought it was appropriate to crack a joke and things go horribly wrong? …

Americans often consider Australian humour offensive as it often aims at taking the ‘micky’ out of themselves or a situation. American humour is considered a bit dull by the Australians; it is too ‘safe’ and aims far more at sharing the agreeableness among business partners. The British humour takes both the micky out of themselves and others and is probably considered a bit too sophisticated for both Australians and Americans. It hints at the fact that the Brits feel they have a unique knack for using words, phrases, and expressions: it allows them to show off their intellectual ability and using their famous understatements.

Contrary to the Brits, Americans and Australians often tend to use their language much more as a functional rather than intellectual tool to get messages across as can be seen in the use of for example Australian language: arvo, barbie, mozzie, pressie, etc. The Australian humour is probably a bit too rough and shallow for the Brits as it is often too direct without the intellectual cleverness so aspired to in the UK. But in all fairness, as long as you talk among English native speakers you might actually get away with your own culturally specific humour as the concepts underlying the humour are not always so different and are less likely to be so offensive as to cost you the business relationship.


Humour is very much culturally influenced and you need to be aware of it before using your favourite joke as it might just cost you the deal… Leave it at home until you are familiar with the do’s and don’ts of humour in the new culture and then adjust your style.

In the future, will gleefully transgressive cartoonists turn in the opposite direction from open, all-inclusive net culture, to publish their work in cultural pods – like Facebook’s gated communities of friends?


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