Continuing our series on British Culture: British Humour
Humour is important in every country and the UK is no exception. However, to truly understand a country’s humour and how and why it is used is not easy. In Britain humour is an important part of life and can be found in just about every situation, no matter how difficult that situation might be. So, what is British humour and how can we best understand it?
Understanding British humour
British humour comes in many different forms. It is often very sarcastic, ironic or self-deprecating (making fun of oneself); at other times it is slapstick (being clumsy / talking about embarrassing events); sometimes it can be dark; it can even be quite vicious. Most people in Britain expect to hear and use humour on a regular basis and hope that others will understand them when they say something funny. British humour is often very subtle. Perhaps one of the best pieces of advice to understanding British humour is to remember that sometimes the speaker does not want you to take what they have just said literally. So, if someone says to you ‘I really like your new jeans’, try to listen for their tone of voice and not just the words they’ve used. It may be that they really like your jeans or perhaps they do not like your jeans at all!
The British will often use humour as a defence mechanism. If they have done something wrong, forgotten or lost something, or cannot think what to say, they will often make a joke about the situation. The listener may or may not join in, but would be expected to understand why the joke was made.
Where is this humour used?
Humour is frequently found in the workplace. The British will often use humour to diffuse a tense situation and to limit confrontation, especially in a meeting or a negotiation, or when giving problematic information during a presentation. Some non-native listeners may feel that the person who is speaking is not taking the situation seriously enough. In fact, the opposite is true. Employees like to make jokes about their boss, often right in front of them. As long as the joke is not too harsh, the boss should except it. Even in a place like A&E (Accident and Emergency) in a hospital lots of humour is used to lighten the mood.
What should I do if a British person makes a joke at me?
Try not to react badly if you are the recipient of the joke. Laugh at it and make a joke back. The first speaker will expect it. Even if the joke is not aimed at you, remember to join in the laughter. What is important to note is that if someone has made a joke at your expense, it means that they like you!
Of all areas of humour there is one that is perhaps most associated with the British, the understatement. So, if it is pouring with rain a British person might say ‘I suppose the weather could be a bit better’. Or if there is a hundred people in a queue someone could say ‘Well, there’s hardly anyone in this queue’. Now that really is funny!
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