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!