Humour: The Number One Expat Survival Tool

Use It and Have Fun!

I was hungry. At only 17 years old, I had sailed into a strange port and, with the very little money I had, needed to find some form of food. Those pastries in the shop window looked really, really good. But what was in them? What were they? I had absolutely no idea and no ability to speak a single word of the language. So I did the only thing that I could: I pointed at the pastries and started to cluck and flap like a chicken! Luckily the shopkeeper, who was a warm soul, waggled her finger and started to make baa-ing noises! Much giggling was had and delicious pastries consumed!

This was my first attempt to break free of the horrors of high school-based language learning. The combination of being certain that I knew absolutely nothing and having a real need for food (as my family are aware: don’t get between me and my food!) created a Nothing To Lose attitude. It was then I learnt to focus on the only tool at my disposal, which was humour. I had accidentally fallen into understanding the key to true communication: to be human, connected, warm, light and open. In short: to be silly and daft! I have been amazed at the beautiful responses and situations that have unfolded in the light of laughter.

A warm smile is the universal language of kindness. – William Arthur Ward

The same approach saved me upon arrival in Switzerland. Due to my widely acknowledged terrible ability to learn languages, those in charge of my teenage education had decided that I should not even attempt to learn German. It was deemed far too difficult for me! As such, the only words I knew upon landing here were “Schnell!” from war movies and “Guten Morgen!” from the Cafe Hag decaffeinated coffee advert. I was very, very lost.

I reverted to my 17-year-old self. I was silly, daft and self-deprecating. My survival as an expat continues to rely heavily upon having a sense of humour and an appreciation for the ridiculous. Frustrating, sticky, red tape-style events can (and must!) be seen as absurd and hysterical. When I become too serious about expat life, I start slipping into believing my own thinking, which is never a great place to try to live from, no matter where in the world you are. In fact, becoming overly serious is the first indication that I am falling into a false perception of the world, based on my thinking. Depression threatens to follow.

There is little success where there is little laughter! – Andrew Carnegie

Allowing ourselves to act from humour neatly side-steps our thinking’s mad whispering about how smart we are or how dumb we are, what people think of us and whether they like us….it just goes on and on. Humour cracks us open to the world, gets us out of our heads and moving toward a place where we truly connect with people.

A wonderful thing about true laughter is that it just destroys any kind of system of dividing people. – John Cleese.

So what happens if we do indeed find ourselves clucking like a chicken and making fools of ourselves, only to be met with a stony silence and possible ejection from the establishment? Isn’t that the question that most of us have running around in our heads? What if I embarrass myself? What if they don’t like me? What if they think I am an idiot?

Those questions are not facts; they are simply thoughts in your head! They are not a reflection of reality and certainly are not “you.” You are not your thoughts. Thoughts are something you experience that are heard in the tone of your own voice (or, on bad days, the voices of your mother/father! Yikes!). They appear to be keeping you “safe” in the world, and hence we all mistakenly listen to them! 99 times out of 100, however, they are stopping you from playing fully in the world. I had a client who believed in her thoughts so much that she never ventured into town. The act of getting a coffee in a strange language was unimaginable to her. What would have happened if she had stepped out of the front door to grab a cup of the hot stuff? It is very likely that she would have been successful, but only if she had interacted in the world, rather than tuned in to her thinking about the world.

Life’s short. Anything could happen, and it usually does, so there is no point in sitting around thinking about all the ifs, ands and buts. – Amy Winehouse

In short: be silly, be funny, and step into the strange world no matter what language is being spoken. You may just find yourself doing a chicken dance!

By Tammy Furey

Tammy is writer, coach, speaker, inconsistent blogger, and workshop facilitator. She is also a yoga nut, German-language learner and, of course, parent. She didn’t mean to write that bit last, but figures you knew that about her already! Visit her at

Illustration by Laura Munteanu

Laura studied journalism and advertising, and has worked as a journalist and an illustrator. She has illustrated for magazines, websites, charity, and diverse campaigns. She lives in Zurich with her husband and nearly nine-year-old daughter.

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