How to be the Maid of Honor and Emcee at an International Wedding

The happy couple

Last week I flew to England to be the Best Brother (Maid of Honor) in my sister Karin’s wedding.

Almost exactly a year ago she had been Best Sister in my own wedding in LA so it was fun to have the role reversal.

I was a little nervous about my speaking role in the wedding because I hadn’t lived in Britain for a while and there are some definite cultural differences between California and the UK.  In addition to the Best Brother role, I was Emcee for the reception and I was concerned that I would mess up my speech or the transitions between different program elements.

In the end things worked out for the most part.  Here are some things I learned along the way:

1)  Mirror what is going on around you.

One of the things I was hyper-aware of was the fact that because I am a naturally loud person I could very easily be perceived as the brash American.  I’ve heard it said that Americans communicate through overstatement and the English through understatement.  I did my best to “tone down” my remarks accordingly.  I only partially succeeded in the end.

2)  Say less than is necessary.

I freaked out when, ON THE DAY OF THE WEDDING, I timed my Best Brother speech and it was over three times longer than it was supposed to be.  I kept trimming away at it and luckily it did not end up being the longest speech at the wedding.  Especially when communicating in cross-cultural context, less is more.  Going too long may be perceived as cultural insensitivity or imperialistic bullishness, especially if you have an American accent.  If your remarks are being translated in real time it is even more important to cut the length down drastically.

3)  Find a local sounding board

Luckily I had several English friends at the wedding that were willing to give me pointers on my speech prep and tell me how the emceeing was going day-of. They mocked my nasal American accent to bits but also offered very helpful advice on what kind of material would go down well with the crowd.  I will confess to stealing a joke or two and passing it off as original material…

4)  Dig for dirt tastefully

Luckily for me, Britain has a very developed “piss-taking” culture where outright insults aimed at friends are an accepted expression of camaraderie.  So it was fairly easy to cobble together enough dirt on the groom (based on restaurant chatter the night before) to spice up my Best Brother speech.  I will say, however, that when I have tried to use the same piss-taking approach in the United States, some Americans have been offended at what they deem unnecessary trash talk.  Know your audience.  What works here may not work there.

5)  If you have a foreign-sounding accent…

I mentioned this earlier but this bears repeating: accents are significant.  They can be a barrier or a facilitator in cross-cultural communication.  To get around anti-American sentiment in Europe, I often joke about my American accent and issue fake apologies for it.  This typically goes down well.  Whether or not you decide to point out your different accent, be sure to proceed confidently with your material.

Me and my pal Kayla, the flower girl

You are who you are and they can deal with it.

6)  Piggyback

If at all possible, try to build common ground with an international audience as fast as possible.  If you can open your remarks with something funny someone else said at the wedding or if you can reference a popular point that a prior speaker made, do it.  Come across as the “reasonable” foreigner who gets it.  Even the staunchest nationalists will appreciate a “good” American/Brit/Swede – one that is not pushing a competing agenda and instead appreciates the local scene.

There’s a lot more that can be said but in the end commonsense and cool heads prevail.  International weddings are a lot of fun.  Don’t let the complexity of the intercultural dynamics scare you off.  There is all kinds of common ground to celebrate.  And in the end it’s not your day anyway, so relax.

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Bjorn Karlman

 

Karin, rocking her role as Best Sister at my wedding in LA on April 3, 2011