Building Relationships with Laughter:
A Negotiator’s Guide to Effectively Using Humor - Part Three

Is humor always appropriate for cross-cultural negotiations? If humor is considered to be practical in cross-cultural negotiations, how should one go about applying the skills? Because laughter and humor are a part of our genetic code, it is just a matter of developing the cognitive process. Just as there are ways to practice and learn negotiation techniques, there are several methods to learn about humor. To use humor more effectively, individuals can take classes in improvisation, read comical literature, watch stand-up comedy to study timing, or follow the basic ideas below:

State the Truth
“The truth is funny.” The most sincere laughs come from events in the past. Borrowed ideas from life and stories about family are comedic gold. The truth is stranger than fiction, and people love to laugh at that absurdity. A famous quote by Carol Burnett is, “comedy is tragedy plus time.” While this is often the case, it would be risky to joke about tragic occurrences in the middle of negotiations. The beauty of the truth is that it always changes; therefore, you will not run out of content. Be topical, read the news and stay on top of current events. Our brain develops funny information and questions every day, we just do not always say it out loud.

Do Not Take Yourself Too Seriously
Laughter, like yawning, is contagious. Smiling is especially important. The ability to laugh at oneself provides all of the physical and emotional benefits as described above. In fact a study was conducted in which, “observations of older individuals who could laugh at themselves indicated they seemed more self-assured and more at ease with themselves than those who were not able to do so.” This confidence is useful in negotiations, and the assurance you present to others will be self-effecting. In fact, during that same study one participant stated, “I wish that I would have developed that ability to laugh at myself sooner. Maybe it is something that comes with age, with experience, but how much happier I would have been had I been able to laugh at myself.” Not taking oneself too seriously helps to deal with an adversary.

When to Not Use Humor in Negotiations
Laughter brings people together, regardless of culture. However, in multicultural negotiations people may use nonnative languages, have different traditions, or evaluate nonverbal cues differently — making successful communication hard to achieve. Comparative cultures have conflicting forms of communication within their social structures and hierarchical systems. Not all negotiations will go smoothly, and humor will not be successful in all multicultural negotiations. “Humor is cognitively based because it is dependent on the individual’s perception of an event, individual, or symbol in comparison to what is considered typical.” The use of humor depends on the circumstances and the parties present.

Humor should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Jokes about race, gender, and religion usually require some sort of unspoken permission. The improper use of humor can lead to negative results; therefore, recognizing the fundamental composition of different cultures will allow one to understand what will be humorous and respectful. It is important to know the culture and its traditions before using humor in a negotiation. High context cultures deliver their actual message or meaning not through their words, but through the context of what they are saying. For example, although someone may say “yes,” his or her body language (such as a frown) or lack of a signature on a document indicates “no.” Low context cultures are known for being blunt and to the point; furthermore, each verbalized message has a direct and obvious meaning. Western and Anglo cultures are typically described as low-context while Asian countries are typically described as high-context cultures. Sarcastic humor may not be successful in negotiations with participants from a low-context culture. Unless a relaxed environment is created, a sarcastic message could be interpreted literally. High-context cultures “are more past oriented and value traditions over change.” The use of humor within high-context cultures could be considered discourteous, disrespectful of customs, and just plain ignorant. Humorous messages depend highly on the recipient’s interpretation; therefore, careful research is required.

Humor is the ideal match for cross-cultural business negotiations because it may act as, “a bouquet, shield, cloak, [or] incisive weapon.” Multicultural negotiations are often filled with uncertainty; consequently, the flexibility of humor is a great tool to help deal with the unexpected. Additionally, the positive psychological and social benefits of laughter are remarkable. The genetic link involved in humor production, comprehension, delivery and interpretation of a joke shows that it is tied to all cultures. While all cultures seem to use humor, it is often context-specific such that “[h]umor is often based on inside knowledge of a culture, and its use also reinforces the sense of group identity. Having a common sense of humor can be experienced as sharing a ‘secret code.’” If you are able to joke with someone within the boundaries of their culture traditions, then it is a sign of trust. It shows that you have taken the time to learn more about their customs, and is a sign that you want to develop a relationship with the parties. Humor creates a social harmony through its ability to create laughter. Laughter has been found to decrease tension, create group cohesiveness, build trust, initiate creativity, and open communication. The positive effects of humor are common among all humans, therefore making this the perfect tool in multicultural negotiations.

by Marie Dominguez-Gasson

Marie Dominguez-Gasson graduated from Pepperdine University School of Law in 2011, where she obtained her Juris Doctor, Master's in Dispute Resolution and a Certificate in International Law. While attending Pepperdine Marie worked in Kampala, Uganda with the Commercial Court and later with the Los Angeles Superior Court. In addition, Marie has over two years of state and federal legislative experience. Marie currently works at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith with the Employment and Labor Group.