Laughing Lawyers Lubricate Touchy Client Communication

There’s nothing worse than strained chit chat with a stone-faced potential client. So, what’s a good way to break the ice? Laughter.

Today’s New York Times sheds some light on this ill understood social phenomenon in What’s So Funny?  Well, Maybe Nothing.  As the article notes, laughter is “an instinctual survival tool for social animals, not an intellectual response to wit. It’s not about getting the joke. It’s about getting along.”

So, lawyers (especially the most serious ones) should certainly attempt to laugh (or at least smile) at their clients’ jokes–no matter how poor. Lawyers can also try to break tense client communication with some laughter because, as the article notes, “mainly it’s a subtle social lubricant.”

Lawyers working on cross-cultural matters should pay close attention to cultural differences in humor.  What’s funny in one country doesn’t always translate abroad.

If you don’t know what constitutes humor in a particular foreign culture, try to gather some data in advance.  Read books like those in the Culture Shock series or Roger Axtell’s Do’s and Taboos of Humor Around the World:  Stories and Tips from Business and Life and Gestures. Speak to  consular representatives from that country, or US State Department personnel assigned to the relevant country desk, and ask about culturally appropriate humor. Foreign language professors and businessmen with experience in the relevant country can also shed light on the topic.

 If you find yourself in the middle of a client conversation without time for advance research, pay attention to any humor introduced by the client.  Gauge what constitutes acceptable humor and, more important, what does no. And if you make a cultural gaffe as I did (see Oops–You Forgot to Say Buenos Dias), apologize, if necessary, make a self-depricating joke about your cultural slight, and above all, learn from your mistake.

For more on this topic, refer to my prior post Address Touchy Subjects with Humor–but Carefully.

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