Laughing Matters: A Case Study of Humor in Multicultural Business Negotiations

humorTaina Vuorela (University of Applied Sciences)




This article reports the results of an ongoing study of multicultural business negotiations. Two meetings were under scrutiny: (1) the internal strategy meeting of a company’s sales team (sellers’ internal meeting or SIM); and (2) a negotiation between the same sellers and a potential customer (client negotiation or CN). The analysis revealed that there were interesting differences in the ways humor was used at the two meetings. The meetings lasted equally long, but SIM featured more humor than CN. Based on the analysis of these meetings, humor seems to have strategic potential for negotiations: it can be used to diffuse tension, mitigate a possible offense, introduce a difficult issue, and thus to pursue one’s own goals. Among the most common subjects of humor were the national characteristics of the Finns (the parent-selling company is Finnish), the project itself, and the selling activity. The most common types of joking in the two meetings were ironic exaggerations and jokes expressing an incongruity. Irony, however, was used more cautiously in CN, where outsiders were present, than in SIM. Joking seems related to power, and power is a factor that influences who has the right to begin and end a joke, and also seems to determine whose joke is laughed at. It is also, not surprisingly, in the sellers’ interest to humor the buyers in the competitive stages of the buying process (e.g., supplier search) in order to “stay in the game,” which is reflected in the use of humor during the meeting.

Laughing Matters: A Case Study of Humor in Multicultural Business Negotiations


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