Posted by: anglopole | June 18, 2008

The British Sense of Humour

Have you ever wondered what a good sense of humour really is? Perhaps, it is just me that cannot precisely describe it? I think it is hard enough to study this matter in relation to one’s own culture, mother tongue, homeland, etc., let alone within a context of a foreign land. They say that you can know you have mastered a foreign language when you are able to understand the humour of the country where the language is spoken.

I would like to have a closer look at a question whether understanding a particular kind of humour equals enjoying the humour?

It is not hard to guess what I am on about, I feel. Of course, it is the British sense of humour that I want to focus on. Here are examples of some British jokes:

 “What is the longest word in the English language? ‘Smiles’. Because there is a mile between its first and last letter”

One day an Englishman, a Scotsman, and an Irishman walked into a pub together. They each bought a pint of Guinness. Just as they were about to enjoy their creamy beverage, three flies landed in each of their pints, and were stuck in the thick head. The Englishman pushed his beer away in disgust. The Scotsman fished the fly out of his beer, and continued drinking it, as if nothing had happened. The Irishman, too, picked the fly out of his drink, held it out over the beer, and started yelling, “SPIT IT OUT, SPIT IT OUT YOU BAS**RD!!!!”

 “Two Americans are talking. One asks: “What’s the difference between capitalism and communism?” That’s easy” says the other one. “In capitalism man exploits man! In communism it is the other way around!”

 When poked with the topic of the famous British humour our minds may project pictures of Benny Hill, Monty Python, Catherine Tate, Little Britain and many many other comedians and shows. Some people would like one, others would prefer another. Comedy show is, like anything, a matter of taste. This is not where, I feel, people find the idea of a sense of humour difficult, or, to be more precise, many find the British sense of humour somewhat on the weird side. (sic!)


I have come across this description of the British humour:

‘Play on words a lot, it’s usually very dark, sarcastic, it plays on negative human emotions. Instead of trying to give you the good feeling, it aims at the negative aspects of life. Ridiculousness of it also plays a big role. ‘

Hmmmm…. right on the money, this description is, I must say! This is exactly what causes many embarassing situations. People who are fluent in English most often fail the test of the British humour. For most foreigners, the sarcastic comments, especially exchanged by the natives in front of the unaware foreigners, are far from amusing. The ‘play on negative emotions’ is usually funny for those resorting to such form of self-entertainment as cynical remarks. It is more of an insult for those on the other end, especially when they are not in any friendly relationship with the author of such statements. A British poster even on an English forum online once told me:

‘That’s the trouble with sarcasm, if you use too much of it you can say something and mean it, but people think you are being sarcastic.’

That points to another problem with the British who pride themselves with a good (in their opinion) sense of humour. They are surprised when people don’t treat them seriously after being treated with huge dozes of direct or indirect mockery. Then when you don’t treat them seriously you get a label of a disrespectful person.

It gets even more interesting when you try to use the famous sarcasm when conversing with some Brits…. As it happened to me on a few occasions, both in RL and online, some citizens of the land of sarcasm do not necessarily like being on the receiving end (sic!) The same Mr Cynic from an English forum said that: ‘You’ll generally find with English/British people, if we don’t like something we respond with sarcasm.’

One can conculde then that the humour in the UK is not really used to amuse people, this is more of a side effect, so to say. The true purpose of the British humour is, then, to ‘stab’ those we don’t like! If only I had known it a few years ago. I would know why my innocent sarcasm here and there was perceived as flippant remarks. I am always ready to appologize if what I said was received as an insult! Unfortunately, in the UK it is uncommon for people to openly say they feel offended…. they usually resort to….


 …… sarcasm…. which, you then understand as their participation in your joking mood…. so, you answer with sarcasm for their sarcasm…. and they get offended even more…..

 and if it’s at a workplace, they report you for inappropriate behaviour. A classic example of Catch-22

 What’s the moral of this strange story of mine here, eh?

While it can be, and often is, amusing to watch British comedy shows, it may not necessarily be so when you are the object at which the huge British arsenal of mockery, sarcasm and cynicism is targeted! Oh, and by the way, do not even think of retaliating using the same weapon!


  1. How do you describe the Polish sense of humor? I find it quite dour


  2. Well, I am not sure how to describe the Polish sense of humour, if there is any such thing(?) Poles tend to complain a lot, but we have quite a lot of comedy shows which majority of people enjoy (especially the satirical ones about the government). Yet, as I said in my ‘masterpiece’;) above, enjoying watching amusing programmes on TV or reading jokes in newspapers is different from real life situations. I will dare say that constant sarcasm doesn’t go down well with Poles, but we’d need to verify my opinion with other Poles!:)
    Thanks for your comment Reason (I would have responded earlier but today’s been very hectic!)


  3. Foreigners think that Polish sense of humor is dour simply because they don’t get it. You had to grow up in Poland to appreciate the funny in “Sami Swoi”, for example. My foreign man just stares at me totally clueless when I ROTFLMAO when Pawlak tells Kargul to come to the fence.


  4. Somehow, British humour managed to become highly regarded abroad and popular in television and cinema. Somehow, Polish humour didn’t.

    Why is that?


  5. @Anna – right on the money! 😀 One has to understand the culture of a country to ROTFLMAO when watching its comedy shows.
    I like many of the British comedy shows. What I don’t like is some British people behaving as if they had the monopoly to shower everyone around with sarcasm, irony, mockery and the like but feeling offended when the same is done to them…

    @Kingoftheslums – I’d say we cannot really compare Poland with Britain in the area of cultural influence on the world, for obvious reasons:) Humour is part of culture and the British one much more widespread (the Commonwealth in itself is a huge chunk of the world), while the Polish culure is, so to say, more local…and can be fully appreciated by people from similar background, that is Slavs, IMHO. I am not at all surprised a foreigner wouldn’t laugh when watchin ‘Alternatywy 4’ or the mentioned ‘Sami Swoi’!
    (btw – I’m pleasantly surprised you bothered yourself reading my ‘masterpiece’, Kingoftheslums). Perhaps, I’ll be a successor of Pani Ola in a certain forum, eh? Only would I be a worthy one, that is a question?! 😉


  6. I should have mentioned that I have absolutely nothing against British humor. It’s the accent that makes me want to drip battery acid into my ears.


    • I think the worst british accents can come from American “funny” programs. They tend to think everyone has either BBC English or a cockney accent! I have never heard a Lancashire accent on an American program- or just about any realistic British accent.


  7. hahaha – yeah, this is what happens when your ears have been Americanized, Ania! 😉


  8. It’s a tragic thing when ears become americanized, really there’s no hope of recovery to a state of true appreciation of the English language.

    Sarcastic enough for ya?

    British humoUr, well what to say? In fact, I have the feeling there’s a lot of common ground between the Polish and British sense of humour, but then I have the suspicion that there’s a lot of common ground between the British and the Indonesian/Chinese/Peruvian/Igbo sense of humour. People laugh at other people who do things slightly wrong or in a slightly exaggerated way according to the rules of their culture. The humour response is a stress-relieving response. If you see somebody doing something weird you’re first response is to withdraw and anticipate conflict, if the conflict isn’t forthcoming your next response is to laugh — physiologically it relieves the ‘fight or flight’ stress. All humour is based on this. It’s a pleasurable thing to be relieved of stress, and that’s why we love comedy above all things — it’s literally a taste of good luck, the fight we were anticipating doesn’t happen. Compare the feeling of being a guest at Fawlty Towers with the feeling of watching the experience of a guest at Fawlty Towers. That’s humour.

    Well, that was an amazingly humourless comment about humour, I’ll shut up now.


  9. We have a saying that there’s always a grain of truth in humour and many people find it easier to express what they think about someone or something through humour. Would you say, Island, that Brits do just that – use sarcasm or irony to say what they think, avoiding being straightforward in this way?


  10. i live in ireland and the fact is if arent funny, you’re fucked chief…the funniest was always the most popular, even to women. so humour has always been a huge part of our lifestyle. a good sense of humour is an indication that you are larger than life, bigger than the trivialities and dilemmas that come your way. and its more spontaneous ,witty, off the cuff type of humour, narrative jokes are often the last resort of a dull shite. there is simply no topic that cant be twisted into a giggle or smart ass gag. its cultural but i have worked and been with many poles and many have said that the irish are very charming and funny, the poles often seem more frank,serious and straight about things….now that i think about it me and my mates never stop joking…


  11. British people can take whatever they give,, haven’t u seen how we’re portrayed abroad,, hugh grant films ring a bell, and numerous other sitcoms show us as indecisive, wimpy, stuck up, spoilt,… the austalians absolutely slaughter us in there newspapers mocking us in every way possible., im not offended and i dont think british people in the main would be either, unless you know the person well, whats the point of taking things to heart, we have our sarcasm just take it with a pinch of salt!


    • Well, Luke, I have had a chance to talk to some English who aren’t exactly good at aither taking any criticism connected with the UK (England, especially) nor sarcasm targetted at some national characteristics of the English. At the same time, these guys ‘specialize’ at mocking everything and everyone around… and are extremely surprised if some people do not find it that entertaining. This kind of attitude is not very uncommon here….


  12. […] The British Sense of Humour 932 views […]


  13. I disagree, I feel that if you are offended by the British sense of humour then you don’t understand how we use it, and if you offend others with it then you’re not doing it right.

    As a nation, we are extremely mocking of ourselves and others around us, but it /is/ meant for entertainment. Sarcasm is a bit of a social thing, and when you can be a moody and cynical old fart around someone you know you’ve bonded.

    I think the key thing to remember is that an insult from a British person is not necessarily made in a nasty way. I feel that perhaps we are just generally afraid of letting our defences down, so adopt a permanently pessimistic stance, and derive humour from that. A British person finds it very difficult to compliment or encourage someone at the risk of sounding cheesy or fake, so, instead, to show appreciation we will make aa off-hand nasty comment. This may sound strange to others, but here we know other Brits will understand the sentiment and understand we don’t mean it. I guess we sometimes forget that other countries don’t share our natural black humour.


  14. im from england and i do really enjoy sarcasm, but i find it very funny to be on the receiving end, i definitely don’t get offended, as amber said if people actually get offended when your saying it then your not being sarcastic your just being horrible.


  15. Sarcasm often requires delicate phrasing; phrasing which can be culturally contextual.

    Want is easy, throw away pub talk in NZ – “yer daft bastard, are ye deaf as well as cheap”

    will get you knifed in Scouse-land.

    But course, clever folk like yourselves are so obviously well travelled and highly educated and no doubt know everything like that.


  16. Cause it’s not at all sad to be dissecting the English sense of humour…
    Seriously though- sarcasm is deffo best if you use it sparingly so no one knows whether you are serious or not. You can laugh at their faces while they try to figure out whether you are insulting them, complimenting them or just joking around…


  17. I get the impression that your main issue is with our use of sarcasm. There are far more uses of sarcasm in conversations than you will find when googling about it. British humour tends to be very clever – that is, you need to use it properly. Sarcasm can be very offensive – “you don’t say?” “Nooo…” (when stating the obvious), etc…but often the offence is in the tone of voice. If sarcasm is used and delivered properly and in an appropriate setting, then it is funny – whether you know the person you are talking to or not.

    We Brits don’t take ourselves too seriously, and are quick to laugh at ourselves. Kinda like an inverse ‘schadenfreude’. Self-deprecating humour is huge here. We are not negative people, as some depict us to be, rather we have an awareness of our flaws and of when things go wrong, and we find a way to lighten the situation through humour. So really you could say we are positive people. As with the sarcasm thing, it’s all in the tone of voice. Rarely will you need a drum kit on hand to mark the end of a joke. Knock-knock jokes are often told be children or drunk people.

    British humour is very dry. Subtle. Sarcastic. But you have to do it properly; simply being able to speak English will not suffice.


    • Nah, I am absolutely fine with sarcasm, as I use it myself and this is one of the things that I love about the Brits 🙂 My issue is rather with the fact the many (not all, surely) Brits tend to accept only the British sense of humour = the one they understand. I found myself on quite a few occasions being jovial, joking with people and getting into trouble for it, as in reported to my superiors, for example. The people in question did not even bother to ask what I meant if they misunderstood the jokes, they just assumed I meant to insult them, when in my culture what I said would make the listeners giggle, if anything… The context is also important – the fact the the joker (me) is smiling, has not harmed anyone and is friendly by nature, also I do not joke with people I do not know. Those who know me, should know I mean no harm… So, it probably is more to do with ignorance of many Brits about cultural differences and that often it is enough to ask for clarification rather than take an offence without even discussing it with the alleged offender. What follows it, I disagree with you on that You Brits do not take yourselves too seriously…. Everywhere around you can see attitudes contradicting it…. The fact that racism still exists in this multicultural society proves the point – if Brits many Brits were not so hang up on their Britishness (which many do not even understand or have knowledge about), they’d be more tolerant and open for all the differences other cultures bring into the social life in the UK, and I do not mean anything that is harmful, or infringes on any freedoms, just cultural differences of behaviour, expression, dress code and, of course, a different sense of humour. Different does not mean worse and living here for the past 10 years I have experienced quite a lot of hostility, often passive, but still and whatever I write, I write out of my experience and I am not judging every single Brit, neither am I a believer in stereotypes, but I do not pretend not to see certain attitudes and behaviours and write about them. 🙂 I studied English, and majored in the Brit.Lit. – I know, what I am talking about and what is more, regardless of all the negatives I do notice, I remain an Anglophile and enjoy living here! 🙂


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