Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Do the Swiss Laugh?

I teach laughter and humor programs in the workplace. When embarking on a business trip last year to both Zürich and Tokyo to teach a laughter program, I was concerned about the cultural aspects indicative to each region. I was told in no uncertain terms that the Japanese certainly will not laugh in a ‘controlled’ environment and that the Swiss as well will first grill and quiz me on the benefits of laughter and then, maybe then, they may offer a chuckle or two. Basically, I was told that both cultures would be very uncomfortable laughing in a business environment and that encouraging them to do so would only help them to feel more uncomfortable.

When I arrived Tokyo I decided to test out the citizen’s laughter willingness and went to a local coffee shop where I easily engaged with a young woman behind the counter. We exchanged pleasant smiles and then I slowly started chuckling which, turned into light laughter until the two of us were fully engaged in free flowing, natural, honest, joyful and unabashed laughter. Soon too, the patrons who were sipping tea and coffee were infected with laughter and willingly joined the fun and within minutes the entire café was one big ball of joyous laughter.

This experience should me that there would be no big challenges the next day when I was scheduled to lead an Investment Bank’s IT group in laughter exercises. And my experiment in the café proved correct: the Japanese do laugh and enjoy it as well. The program was a huge success and the group went back to their desks with more vigour, energy and happiness, which, we all know turns into better efficiency and productivity.

Zurich I felt would be a different experience than Tokyo. I was nervous. The first time I taught a team building class was a huge learning experience with a great toll to my pride, ego and feelings. I was so excited to be in Switzerland! I loved the country years before I stepped foot into it and having been a skier for over 35 years I felt like I was going to the Mecca of snow and mountains. Within ten minutes after the start of the class a young man stood up and said in no uncertain terms, “This is bullshit!” You could feel a pall settle on the training room that weighed ten tons. My face turned bright red and my heart attempted to leap from my chest. Where’s the Swiss courtesy and neutrality that I so often heard and read?

This was my introduction to the Swiss corporate culture so I was sure that the laughter program scheduled for the following day would not be a success. I was wrong. The first class had less than ten participants, which is not always conducive in helping attendees drop their inhibitions and spread laughter. Within ten minutes the class was in an uproar of laughter. So much so, that a business meeting of investors in the next room, (unbeknown to us at the time) came into our training room wanting to join in.

Since I have ‘taught’ (how does one teach what is so instinctive?) laughter in this Swiss Investment Bank their offices have a healthy radiance filled with laughter, appropriate laughter. After all, they are in a business setting but just because they are laughing and are subsequently more happy dose not mean they are not producing, quite the contrary. This is what I convey to all of my clients: happy workers are more productive, healthier and loyal workers and, we have the data to back that statement.

Teaching laughter and humour programs all over the world, I have found believe it or not, that the group that has the most difficult time letting themselves go just to laugh, are the Americans. Yes, it’s true. We, you are considered so brash and bold and loud are the most introverted (my own unscientific experience) when it comes to the exercise of laughter.

When it comes to the Swiss laughing, one just needs to visit my wonderful friends and colleagues (pictured above) in Thun, Switzerland at the Sol Luna Centre where mothers, fathers and children of all ages laugh freely and joyfully everyday.

We're going to test laughter out on the Spaniards this spring when we run two Laughter Yoga Retreats in Tenerife and Barcelona. The Americans will get a chance to prove me wrong this summer when I will lead a three-day Laughter Yoga workshop at Kripalu Center for Health and Yoga.
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