Humour and expatriates in Japan: mission impossible?

“(Humor) is humanizing” – Forbes

“Survey findings – what makes a man close to ideal? – Has a good sense of humour.” – GQ Australia

(NB – according to this study some expatriates in Australia had difficulties understanding Australian sense of humour :-p )

What’s going on here?

Courtesy of Giphy

This is a brief introduction to a side project I have recently initiated…

Humour is an interesting ‘thing’: some people have it, some have difficulties understanding it, it can bring people together or create divides, and it is also…something else?

At the same time, studies – especially in the context of Japan -have found expatriates to find it challenging to adjust to the host country’s culture, and as such quite often expatriate assignments are considered as failures in one way or another. Or in other words, from an expatriate’s and their family’s perspective, Japan has traditionally seen as a challenging country: language, culture, and social networks are understood as somewhat alien to expatriates especially coming from North America or Europe.

Is this really the case? Are expatriates (either self-initiated or sent by their organisation) utterly depressed in Japan?  While at the same time Tokyo and Japan in general rank as some of the safest and creative places to live?

Happiness is something personal, and as such generalisations should be dealt with care, but thoughts like these made me think how expatriates are actually adjusting in Japan. More specifically, what role does humour play in expatriate’s overall satisfaction at and outside work, and how humour functions in an international workplace.

So far I have conducted around 10+ interviews with expatriates in Tokyo, and my plan is to continue collecting data whenever I have time from my usual duties: but I do not wish to focus only on expatriates, but my aim is to interview also Japanese who are working with international colleagues and/or clients. Thus, my aim here is to broaden the scope by giving voice to the host country nationals, as well.

And now for some insights based on the data I have collected so far:

  1. More often than not I hear people saying sarcasm as a form of humour is tricky in Japan. However, could it be that the communicative tactics and techniques we use to convey sarcasm differ?
  2. Humour can be seen as a social lubricant, adhesive, and as such it might be part of something ‘bigger’: humour brings people together, establishes a common ground. Maybe this is a bit trippy, but sometimes it feels as if humour is a sort of energy flowing through and between us individuals. Whether we decide to harness that energy for good is up to us, as well as the organisational structures and norms…

And here’s the thing: if humour is indeed a sort of social lubricant, how could we nurture it in terms of expatriate adjustment, product development, customer service, and so forth? (now that I’m writing this, humour does seem to resonate quite nicely with Nonaka’s concept of ba, space)

It’s difficult to say anything deeper at this point, but I have a strong feeling humour plays an essential role not only in how expatriates are adjusting to their new host country but also in nurturing and developing the organization’s dynamic capabilities…

If you’d like to be interviewed for this project, please get in touch with me! 🙂

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