Humor and Rapprochement

12/03/2010 01:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Humor is the great thing, the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our irritations and resentments slip away and a sunny spirit takes their place," Mark Twain once wrote. My contribution to you is to encourage you to add humor -- and sensitivity to cultural values -- when you do business in other countries. In reading additional Mark Twain essays, written around the fin de siècle, I am reminded that even in his darkest moments, he used humor. However, as you navigate our interconnected world, be mindful that humor is one of the most difficult cross-cultural skills to develop. In fact, Mark Twain wrote "The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French." Twain did not like the French, particularly since many of them during his lifetime did not like his humor. To turn the tables, and to be accepted in a foreign culture, it helps to appreciate another's sense of humor and understand the cultural basis for it. Learning the language helps understand clever turns of phrase and wit. One British lecturer proclaimed in 1895 that American humor was "distinctly a thing sui generis" though the "only intellectual province in which the people of the United States have achieved originality."

Mark Twain notes Horace Walpole's observation that the world is a comedy to those who think, and Twain elaborates by saying a person must tap into another's emotion and even suffer to create humor.

What is humor? ...Life has been finely defined as "a tragedy to those who feel -- a comedy to those who think." That is a very fine definition of the main qualities that go to make the humorist. I maintain that a man can never be a humorist, in thought or in deed, until he can feel the springs of pathos. (Source: II. Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald, 17 September 1895, pp. 5-6)

Henry Bergson, Nobel Prize winner of Literature in 1927, provides a French perspective on humor. In his book Esprit de Rire (The Spirit of Laughter), he described attributes of wit as performative mental agility, cleverness and exuberance of mind. In his essay about laughter, he continues to show how humor, if understood by both parties involved, can demonstrate our own non-adaptive behaviors and, through a mild form of humiliation, lead to a correction or genuine improvement in relationship.

The more I read the philosophy of Bergson, the more I realize that he explained the ideas of creativity. In his Nobel acceptance speech, he asserts that technology enlarges the body of humanity, but without an enlargement of the "moral rapprochement between peoples," antagonisms will grow.

Rapprochement for today

"Rapprochement" is a word of French origins that means the establishment of or state of having cordial relations. Given the headlines of today in which North Korea, China and Russia figure prominently, the concept of "rapprochement" is returning to important dialogues and negotiations. Even hostile takeover bids between companies, such as Kraft and Cadbury, can only succeed when parties discuss mutual considerations and concerns. Today, as at any point in time, we need to remember that establishing cordial relations is a basic step to understanding the motivations of other cultures. In my Shaking the Globe book, I suggest 5 questions that anyone doing business in another culture needs to answer in order to improve relations and overcome the fear associated with globalization. The fear is based on the assumption that Western societies might be compelled to regress in some areas, such as environmental awareness, women's rights, or workplace safety, to compete better in traditional manufacturing and other labor-intensive industries. This type of fear remains a powerful tool in slowing and combating globalization. I contend that Western social goals are best pursued through free governments and free markets. To achieve this goal and to understand cross-cultural cues, keep communication open and minimize hostilities, ask yourself the following:

  1. Do people identify themselves primarily as individuals or as members of a larger collective?
  2. Do people with different levels of power and prestige treat one another equally or unequally?
  3. To what extent do different cultures emphasize combat (tough) or compromise (tender)?
  4. How do cultures differ in terms of taking risks, tolerating ambiguity, and needing relatively little organizational structure?
  5. How precisely do people from different cultures deal with time?

To these, I would today add: Approach all people of all cultures with a willingness to smile at them and laugh at oneself. Let's use our creativity and a sense of humor to improve our cultural relations. Twain guides us with this aphorism: "All you need is ignorance and confidence and the success is sure. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand."