Discovering British humour

When moving to a new country there are endless things to discover, to learn, and to explore. Language is one of the obvious ones, as well as behavioural code, what not to do to embarrass yourself or those around you.

Arriving in the UK, I had to learn to drive on the left. I also discovered that the street numbering is not the same as where I grew up in Montevideo; take for example Piccadilly where increasing numbers run sequentially on the same side of the street; coming to the end of the street, they jump across, and come back to the beginning of the street on the other side. I'm afraid this type of street numbering has sometimes caught me out making me late for appointments.

But I think the most difficult aspect of the British to understand is their humour; I don't think I am on my own to admit it. To outsiders it can be confusing, infuriating, and frustrating. Whereas other cultures have a place and a time for humour, the British are always ready for it.

Much of English humour is not always going to be side splitting and will not result in fits of laughter, but if it brings smile to your face, that is if you get it, then it has achieved its goal.

In the British culture it is most important not to be earnest. One immediately thinks of Oscar Wild’s play, ‘Of The Importance Of Being Earnest’ a biting satire of the solemn Victorian ways, illustrating the British humour.

British are particularly sensitive to the difference between being serious and solemn, between sincerity and earnestness. To stay with Oscar Wilde, ‘Life is too important to be taken seriously’.

Earnestness having been proscribed, leads us to self-deprecation. For example, a quote by Simon ‘I love nothing more than exploring new places, which is always an adventure considering my terrible sense of the direction.’

Underlying self-deprecation you will find irony, illustrated so brilliantly by Monty Python or Blackadder or Mr Bean. Irony is part of British DNA, delivered mostly with a dead-pan face and perfect timing, leaving you wondering whether it was a joke, or maybe not. British are joking but not joking, caring but not caring.

The understatement, which we have mentioned elsewhere (Discovering the English Language code), is a form of irony to be found everywhere. The understatement is not an exclusive trait of the British, just that they use it so much that they are rather better at it having had much more practice. Steed in the TV series The Avengers comes to mind, as the stereotypical English gentleman, complete with Savile Row suit, bowler hat, and tightly rolled umbrella, always in control and with a quip in the most dangerous moments

Strangely enough, although British humour can be quite biting, you will frequently notice that someone likes you when they start ‘offending’ you with the occasional witty tongue-in-cheek comment. This is done with a smiling face and no apology.

English humour is not something you can learn; you have to let it grow on you. Until that time, you may continue to be confused and bewildered.


Subscribe to our newsletter

© 2019 on Intercultural - All rights reserved - Guy H Bondonneau T/A on Intercultural