Research article
Issue: № 3 (7), 2016


This study regards the atmosphere of intercommunication as an important oral discourse dimension. The paper offers a short outline of the main aspects of such an evasive dimension as a favourable communication atmosphere with English native speakers. Especially counterpointed is the role of humour in the intercommunication with natives. As it is concluded, humour is used more widely and in some unusual for Russians public contexts, which means that a certain modification of the Russian stance would be welcome. The research is the result of personal longitudinal investigations of the author in authentic English public discourse, its comparison with Russian public discourse and the relevant literature review.


Although English as the Lingua Franca is gaining ground all over the world involving non-natives from all ethnic backgrounds into intercommunication in English, successful intercommunication in English with natives remains an important and not easy task. The importance of resultative contacts with the Anglo-Saxon world, be it in diplomacy, politics, technological and military sphere, or academic cooperation, can hardly be underestimated. There have been numerous researches on the English native discourse dimensions (Z. Harris, T. van Dijk, G. Leech, J. Swales, R. Wodak etc.), much fewer comparative papers on cross-cultural Russian-English discourse differences (S. Ter-Minasova, I. Khoutiz, Z. Proshina, Н. И. Смирнова etc.), and still fewer works devoted to the delicate matter of the favourable atmosphere conducive to efficient communication with English native speakers (the literature refers mainly to the ways of improving a business team or classroom communication environment). Meanwhile, part and parcel of the intercultural discourse competence indicator is demonstration of the discourse qualities, or speech strategies, expected by the foreign interlocutor [12, p. 54]. 

The favourable atmosphere of any act of intercommunication plays the key role in its success. A rule of thumb, to this effect, is at least excluding everything, in terms of ethnic communication conventions, that may irritate or upset the native Anglo-Saxon addressee. Such ethnic restrictions may concern, among other things, communication space, body language, haptics (touch behaviour), which means that foreigners should take care and exclude from communication

  • certain gestures common to Russian communication but impolite in Anglo-Saxon cultures, for example, pointing one’s forefinger at something or somebody, waving one’s hand back and forth – an inviting gesture in Russian culture, waving one’s hand from side to side, kissing as a greeting of men etc. [13];
  • touching, hugging or slapping the back of an Anglo-Saxon interlocutor [8];
  • approaching the native speakers of English closer than 90 – 120 cm, the most comfortable personal space for them, standing nearer is taken for obtrusiveness [2, p. 8].

A very important taboo in conversation with English-speaking natives is the choice of topics of conversation, especially with strangers or newly acquainted people. It depends on the cultural traditions and values. Thus, according to R. Lewis and other scholars, tabooed topics with Britons and Americans are “social conflicts”, especially in home countries, “the Royal Family”, “religious and political affiliation”, “family affairs”, “academic progress and scores of the children”, “personal income”, “personal health” and everything arousing pathos.

Building up a positive atmosphere of intercommunication with English native speakers does not only imply exclusion of the above negative elements but also includes certain quite welcome qualities. Among them are the following:

(1) Obligatory ‘phatic communion’ (B. Malinowski) or small talk to establish rapport, which is a stronger social imperative in British than in American culture and still less important for Russians who are ready to take the bull by the horns and therefore can seem rude to native communicators. Knowledge of Anglo-Saxon cultural values can suggest some sure-fire topics for small talk (hobbies, pets, sports, good buys or bargains, the weather etc.).

(2) Greetings with a smile [13].

(3) Complimenting the audience in public speaking (Leech, Hegarty, Holmes & Brown). As Janet Holmes and Dorothy Brown noted, complimenting failures are due to ignorance of the social and cultural values of the addressee. Therefore, good compliments for English native speakers should be appeals to their ethnic values, such as “We really admire your energy / sense of freedom”, “It was a skillfully played game” [5], “We pay due to your insular pride, and ….” etc.

A small-scale survey undertaken by us among Russian native speakers educated to a degree in philology (30 persons) has shown that the majority considered a greeting with a smile or with a compliment to be non-typical of Russian public communication.

The most decisive positive role for communication atmosphere with English speaking natives is undoubtedly played by humour. As R. Lewis argues, “Humour during business meetings is not infrequent in most European countries, although it is less common among Latins than with Northern peoples, where it is a valuable tool for breaking the ice”, but “it is in the Anglo-Saxon countries that humour is used systematically” [8, p. 14]. The author of this paper had a chance to make sure that humour is used by Britons even in the most unusual for us, Russians, contexts: one of the international linguistic conferences, which was arranged by the MATSDA Association and was held in Limerick (Ireland) was praise opened by the Chairperson not with a traditional and easily predicted (and because of that boring) welcome speech, but with a short greeting and a humourous session of jokes and funny anecdotes from all the participants. It was very unusual and a kind of a culture shock for me.

From the viewpoint of R. Lewis, E. Hegarty, A. Zijderveld and others, the role of humour in intracommunication and intercommunication of native speakers is great. Humour brings people from different ethnic backgrounds together, wins hearts and helps to establish rapport. It arouses, if not a friendly attitude, but confidence of Anglo-Saxon partners. Humour models identities, mitigates conflicts, or, on the contrary, may be a strong weapon [11]. “British executives can use humour as a weapon in ridiculing an opponent or showing disagreement or even contempt” [8, p. 197].

The reconciling and promising fact concerning humourous discourse is a proposition that there is ‘international humour’, when “some types of humour and some types of jokes gain international acceptance” [8, p. 13]. R. Lewis considers two types of humour internationally acknowledged. They are certain theme jokes (e.g. ‘restaurant jokes’, ‘air plane jokes about who must jump first out of the plane’, ‘elephant jokes’, ‘golfers’ jokes’ etc.) and slapstick humour, that is fun arising from violence and laughed at by Europeans, Americans, Africans and Asians alike. As slapstick is more an act of performance rather than communication event, the former type is more valuable for linguists and communicators, because it suggests the topics for jokes or personal anecdotes that can be prepared in advance. 

However, there are some pitfalls lying await in intercommunication flavoured with humour. First of all, Anglo-Saxon humour is not homogenious. Similarly to the English language, it has its geographical and cultural variations. Although humour is welcome in each  Anglo-Saxon communication, there are nuances. According to R. Lewis, humour is relaxed in Canada and New Zealand, but can be provocative in Australia. In tune with their “tall poppy syndrome”, Aussies are cynical of people in power or with too much wealth, they respect the ‘battler’ rather than the winner [8, 208]. Canadians, like Australians, respect underdogs too. American humour is spicy and sarcastic, ‘rustic’ and exaggerating [9, p. 261-263]. Contrarily, British humour is intellectual, subtle and is often based on “understatement” [9, ibid.].

It is well known that expectations of what is funny vary from culture to culture.  There are several modes of Anglo-Saxon humour, that is things that seem funny in English-speaking countries.

  • One of the things laughed at is the conflict between what is said and the generally known [7, p. 34]. That is why the jokes of A. Word were so popular with Britons and Americans in the XX century. His humour was based on saying self-evident copybook maxims which made people smile, e.g. “I was born in the state of Man of parents”, “The highest part of that mountain is the top”. These quotations are echoed by A. Chekhov’s phrases known to any Russian from school years, “The Volga flows into the Caspian Sea”, “Horses feed on oats”. This type of humour of banalities is not foreign to Russians either. Nevertheless, our habitually calm perception of trivial maxims may be fraught with unpredictable reactions from natives when American audience react with laughter to an utterance said in earnest, e.g “We live in a very complex world today”. This phrase of a Russian guide spoken to a group of American tourists was guffawed at, which bewildered the guide.
  • Another popular mode of the funny is the conflict between the genteel and the vulgar and their irreconcilability [10, p. 385]. It can be illustrated by the discourse of the famous American film “Some Like It Hot” (the Russian release version was titled «В джазе только девушки»).
  • As it has already been mentioned, while American humour may be based on exaggeration, British humour is rooted in understatement, which means utility of thorough opposite figures of speech, such as hyperbole and litotes. One of the forms of understatement is self-disparagement or self-depricating, that is demonstrating excessive modesty very much valued by Britons [8, p. 199]. These observations can be a valuable guideline for communicators with Britons and Americans.
  • There is evidence from native speakers that ad-hoc humour is appreciated by Anglo-Saxon natives much higher than ‘canned’ humour. According to some authors, R. Reagan won the elections in 1980 thanks to his skill to straighten out hard situations with his personal observations instead of ready-made jokes [1].  


Setting up a proper atmosphere for communication is an important stage of discourse structure and a challenging task from pedagogical prospects.

The ethnic specificity of Anglo-Saxon ethics of communication should be taken into consideration by Russian speakers of English to ease communication with the target interlocutors. It requires not only exclusion of unwelcome discourse qualities, but also utility of special rhetoric, humour in particular. Better understanding about delivery of humour across cultures may improve the ecology of intercommunication between Russians and English natives. Knowledge of the special role of humour in the Anglo-native discourse can help to better plan business meetings making them more lively, as well as dilute serious academic lectures and welcome speeches at international conferences with light and pleasant inserts. That is why it would be a good idea to prepare for an international encounter not only with the serious matter in question but also to get well stocked with something funny to tell.

Moreover, humour can be a powerful argument in debate with natives as well. As R. Lewis has it, “your strongest weapon is dry humour, supported by a cool, laid-back approach” (not an agitated manner or passionate speech, many Russian public figures fall into).  Ideally, mastering atmosphere-building techniques should pave the way for adequate impromptu humourous reactions to native speakers.

In other words, meeting the ethnic requirements of the favourable communication atmosphere demands modifying our stance according to the addressee’s expectations.

This is an interesting subject for further theoretical research and practical recommendations for all those who deal with English-speaking natives.


  • Bondarenko O.R. Nacional’no-kul’turnaja identichnost’ v mezhdunarodnoj akademicheskoj kommunikacii: pljus ili minus? [National and cultural identity in the international academic communication: plus or minus?] // Dialog kul’tur. Kul’tura dialoga: v poiskah peredovyh sociogumanitarnyh praktik. Materialy Pervoj mezhdunarodnoj konferencii (Moskva 14-16 aprelja 2016g.) [Dialogue of cultures. Culture of dialogue: in the search of progressive socio-humanitarian practices. Materials of the First international conference (Moscow, April 14-16, 2016)] - M.: Jazyki Narodov Mira, 2016. – P. 51-56. [in Russian]

  • Smirnova N. I. Neverbal’nye aspekty kommunikacii [Nonverbal aspects of communication]. // Thesis for the degree of PhD in Philology. – M., 1971. [in Russian]