Humour is International: Breaking Down Cultural Barriers in the Classroom

By Neil Root
Neil Root is a writer and London based English Language teacher with 10 years experience.

Humour is International: Breaking Down Cultural Barriers

By anuarsalleh [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

As in life, the greatest tool when teaching abroad you have to overcome difficult situations is humour, whether in the classroom or in your free time in that country. There will be times – every teacher working in another country has experienced them – when you feel a little alienated. Laughing and making others laugh can break down barriers and help you integrate quickly. Being able to laugh at yourself is a great advantage.

Taking yourself too seriously as a person in another country, when you don’t have your family, friends and usual social network at hand, only makes your integration into the new culture more difficult. You need to take your teaching and administrative school duties seriously obviously, but you can do it with a smile. Try to remember that you are the visitor and at a social disadvantage – I can remember several instances when humour got me out of situations I didn’t feel comfortable in. In class, I had a hostile student who made cutting comments about western culture, and instead of getting defensive (my first mental reaction), I said, ‘But we gave you Mr Bean!’ The rest of the class laughed, one or two said ‘Mr Bean!’ The difficult student didn’t laugh, but he was then the odd one out, not me. He never troubled me again.

Play the fool (within reason)

In social situations where you feel alien it sometimes helps to play the fool (within reason – you are a teacher remember!). Show that you are willing to meet the host culture halfway and with a good heart, and you will be welcomed. In Spain years ago I did an impression in class of Enrique Iglesias singing ‘I Don’t Need A Hero, Baby’ as if he were sitting on the toilet, his roller-coaster vocals influenced by his bowel movements, whilst in a bar with students. It was spontaneous and went down a storm, and that became a funny talking point until I left. But these days I draw the line at karaoke – I once humiliated myself doing ‘Return to Sender’ by Elvis Presley, sounding like a brain-damaged boxer, and going to class the next day was difficult. I’d broken down the barriers with my students too much, and it was difficult to make them work! But you learn – that’s how you become a better teacher and a more developed character.

Always laugh with your students in foreign countries, and not at them, unless it’s a very gentle joke and you know they will appreciate it. Some people love banter, others are very sensitive. You are using humour to have a good time and fit in, but remember that you are an EFL teacher and not a stand-up comedian. The moment has to be right, and it’s usually spontaneous. Your job is to teach and create a good learning environment, and whichever country you’re teaching in humour is a way to achieve that. Your boss won’t be happy if half the class love you, but the other half of the class complain they are learning nothing. It’s all about balance and choosing good moments. Have fun, but be serious when you need to be. Good luck.


Neil Root is a London-based writer and journalist who has also worked as an English language teacher for ten years, in London and several countries abroad.