Address Touchy Subjects with Humor – but Carefully

Cultural conflicts invariably arise. Instead of ignoring them, acknowledge them, directly or sometimes indirectly, as appropriate from your client’s cultural perspective.

However, just ignoring conflicts makes them loom larger than life. They can become an “elephant in the corner” and keep business from progressing.

If directly acknowledging the cultural divide feels uncomfortable, try breaking the ice with humor. Once as a young lawyer I went to the World Bank to represent a Pakistani businessman in important negotiations. Even though he was a seasoned, international businessman, he certainly was not expecting that a junior, female attorney would represent him.

When I met my client, I immediately sensed his discomfort. Silence fell as we waited in the conference room. Finally, my client asked in a puzzled voice, “Recently when I have come to the U.S, I have always been assigned a female lawyer. Why is that?” In a straightforward manner I replied, “Well, I guess that’s because we’re just smarter.”

My client looked at me with surprise – and then we broke into uproarious laughter. From then on our meeting became relaxed and productive.

Humor can backfire, so use it judiciously. The more that you know about your client’s background and cultural norms the better, because Western humor doesn’t always translate… Good luck!

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