Friday, March 09, 2012


When presenting 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 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 humor is OK, you need to become familiar with other customs in the country in which you are presenting. 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 when in a foreign country. Here's just a few serious mistakes that could easily be made during a presentation 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 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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