Case study: Mixed drinks prank

A prank backfires during a short-term mission trip

It's sometimes said that "laughter has no accent." Is that really true? A great deal of humor is culture-specific. Mike had pulled off what he thought would be a great joke. His American teammates had laughed. Their Japanese teammates had not. had not. Now Mike wondered what he could do to repair the damage he had caused.

The original plan for the summer had looked good on paper. The idea had been to take some American college students, put them together with a small group of Japanese young people, and send the resulting international team to Indonesia for eight weeks of ministry.

Half of the summer was now gone, but the Americans and Japanese had yet to bond into a unified team. Though they followed the same daily schedule, they remained two separate groups, each with its own leader.

To be sure, oral communication was a major problem. None of the Americans spoke Japanese. Only one of the Japanese group was fluent in English. So, most communication had to flow through that one Japanese person.

Even more significant than the language difficulties was the issue of shared goals. Mike felt the two groups hadn't come to Indonesia on the same wavelength. The four Americans, who came from different universities, had gone through the Youth in Mission selection and training process. They had come out of their week-long training camp fired up about evangelizing Indonesia. The six Japanese had signed up for the trip as a for-credit cross-cultural class from Japan Christian Junior College. They had not had specialized training for summer ministry and Mike had the sense they weren't interested in learning about it from the Americans.

One of the team's ministry opportunities involved local schools. During the Youth in Mission training camp at the beginning of the summer, the importance of "relationships" had been hammered into the American participants. So, at the schools, they would mix with the students and try to befriend them. The Japanese frustrated Mike because it seemed like they would do their part of the program at the school and then they would withdraw to themselves.

One day in the middle of the summer, the entire team stopped to eat at a McDonald's restaurant. As they were going inside, Mike had an idea. He had heard that humor was a universal language. Perhaps, he thought, a little prank evoking smiles and laughter from both groups would draw them together a bit.

He hit on the idea of offering an unusual-tasting drink to the Japanese group leader, a man in his late twenties. Telling a couple of the Americans what he was going to do, Mike quickly paid for a large drink and headed for the beverage dispensing area. There he put a little bit of every available drink into the cup.

Then, he went to the Japanese leader and handed the cup to him. Receiving Mike's gift with typical Asian gratitude, the thirsty Japanese took a big drink. With mounting anticipation, Mike waited for the man's reaction to the bizarre flavored beverage. Mike thought the man's reaction would draw smiles and laughter from everyone. He was wrong.

With a strained look on his face, the Japanese looked back down into the cup. Then, under his breath, he said something in Japanese. Mike was met with an eerie collective silent stare from the Japanese group. Mike's three American teammates, realizing something had gone wrong, busied themselves with their own food and drink. It was then that Mike vaguely remembered reading something that said that Japanese don't enjoy humor that directs attention toward or embarrasses another person. He realized that was exactly what he had done.

The Japanese seemed to be saying: "How could you, a younger person, dare to do this to an elder?" As the day wore on, it became clear that Mike's attempt at building a bridge with a prank had backfired, stifling communication between the two groups of young people.

Mike remembered having seen a 1960s movie called "The Ugly American." It was based on a book of stories about good and bad things Americans did while in other countries. Mike was afraid that his mixed drinks trick had marked him as one of the "ugly" Americans.

As he went to bed that evening Mike wondered what, if anything, he should do. Just before he went to sleep, he decided that he . . .

Processing the case study

Need help in deciding what Mike should do about his mixed drink prank? [ case study discussion guide ]

Note: This is the story of a real incident recounted to me by one of the participants. The names of people and countries involved have been changed.

-- Howard Culbertson,

Afterword: To be Used After the Case Study Has Been Throughly Discussed

When a prank backfires in a cross-cultural situation, it's essential to handle the situation with sensitivity, respect, and maturity. Here are some words of advice:

Remember, mistakes happen, but how you respond to them is what truly matters. By approaching the situation with humility, empathy, and a willingness to learn, you can turn a prank gone wrong into an opportunity for cultural growth and understanding.

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