Most of us risk enough foot-in-mouth moments in English without setting ourselves up for near certain embarrassment in other languages and cultures. To avoid such international blunders, we must understand that the first meeting with a client or associate from another culture is not the time to relate an untested joke.
Earlier this month, when Australian morning news anchor Karl Stefanovic got the enviable chance to interview the Dalai Lama, he good-naturedly decided to share a joke about the Dalai Lama. The incident, viewed by more than a million people on YouTube, illustrates the difficulty of conveying humor in other languages.
“The Dalai Lama walks into a pizza shop,” began Stefanovic, pausing as the Dalai Lama waited for the interpretation.
“Pizza?” asked the spiritual leader.
“Pizza. Yes, pizza shop,” confirmed the broadcaster, before delivering the punch line, “ and says, ‘can you make me ‘one’ with everything?’”
The Dalai Lama smiled graciously but delivered a blank stare to both Stafanovic and the interpreter, indicating he clearly did not get the joke.
“Do you know what I mean?” asked Stefanovic as he laughed nervously and then repeated the punch line with energetic hand motions. Unfortunately, in translation, the Dalai Lama still did not see the humor intended.
Defeated, Stefanovic buried his head in his hand and admitted, “Oh, I knew that wouldn’t work,” which finally elicited a genuine laugh from the Dalai Lama.
This joke is not understood in many languages not merely because the concept of a pizza shop (or hot dog stand in different versions of the joke) may be culturally unrecognizable, but also because the play on the word “one” can be impossible to translate. Puns are almost always lost in translation and should be avoided in cross-cultural attempts at humor.
As this column has explained previously, humor should always be tested before sharing it with an audience in another culture. Even presidents, who are often assisted by speechwriters and teleprompters, have forgotten this important piece of preparation.
On May 4, 2009, President Barack Obama tried his luck at off-the-cuff humor in Spanish, a language he does not speak. The Washington Times reported:
“For scheduling reasons, he planned to observe the Mexican national holiday of Cinco de Mayo (5th of May) at the White House a day early, and he tried to make a joke of it in Spanish. ‘Welcome to Cinco de Cuatro – Cinco de Mayo at the White House,’ said Mr. Obama, botching the translation of ‘May 4.’ ‘Cinco de cuatro’ means ‘five of four’; ‘Cuatro de Mayo’ was what the president wanted to say.”
Even larger comedic productions require a lot of effort to localize for other cultures. For example, adaptation of the U.K. sitcom “The Office” for a U.S. audience demanded complete recreation of a new series and saw amazing results. On the other hand, the Simpsons changed quite a bit to localize TV shows for the Arabic speaking world where it received mixed reviews.
Some situations will never be humorous in most cultures, such as when Vladimir Putin, years ago, was rightfully scorned for crudely joking about rape. Other situations are funny in some cultures but not in others. For example, in some countries like Iran, jokes about political or religious figures can get you into serious legal trouble.
Universally, etiquette usually tells us to avoid humor that comes at the expense of one’s hosts or guests. One German ambassador to Ireland ignored this in 2007 when he made repeated jokes to an audience of industrialists in Dublin that implied the Irish were sadly obsessed with money. His performance earned an official rebuke from the Irish government.
Self-deprecating humor is usually more acceptable, though some cultures consider it a sign of weakness. Dieter Zetsche, a German businessman who has headed up Daimler AG and Mercedes-Benz, has actually seen some success thanks to this type of humor. In fact, he has been called one of the best-liked executives in the auto industry because of his self-deprecating wit.
"You can't pretend to be someone you're not," said Zetsche to Reuters. "I'm not a John Wayne kind of leader ... I'm not a flashy guy. I'm bald. I have a big mustache. I wear glasses. I speak English with a bit of an accent. And I don't mind making fun of myself."
In most cases, everyone will benefit from not taking themselves too seriously. This was illustrated well in the incident involving Stefanovic and the Dalai Lama. The host should have never attempted the joke in the first place, but both he and his guest handled it well once the damage was done. The failed comedian took it all in stride, laughing at his own flop, and the Dalai Lama was nothing but gracious and forgiving.
With a little caution and preparation, humor can ease tensions and create a more amiable atmosphere. If that fails, we can only hope everyone will be as gracious as the Dalai Lama.