I was pleased to be recently published in the Focus UK magazine, sharing my article on British humour for their international network in their latest Spring 2021 edition.
Sorry, we’re British
“The problem with the English is you never know when they are joking or being serious.”
Stiff upper lip? Confusing? Infuriating? The British like to think they have a unique sense of humour, but humour is of course a universal human experience. So, is there something about British humour that makes it different?
Humour comes up everywhere in the UK, in all parts of social & work life. It pops up in the most unlikely places, including in what appears to be the most serious of business meetings & particularly in times of crisis. Just look at the range of Covid-humour that came up in the last year.
The British seem to value it highly, but it can be hard to define & British people can rarely explain it to you.
The most important thing to realise is that although a British person is trying to be funny, this can be disconnected from their facial expressions & body language, so it is not immediately obvious. At most, you may see smirks, small smiles or a facial twitch, but not big belly laughs & loud roars of laughter.
Likewise, the humour tends to be subtle & you may have to read between the lines to understand it. It’s certainly not about sharing big anecdotes & obvious jokes.
In my view it’s not necessarily unique, but an interesting study in 2008 by scientists identified a strong genetic predisposition to negative humour in the UK, such as sarcasm & teasing.
In work situations it is used to lighten things up when discussions get serious, speed up the chat & quickly change the direction of the conversation. It can also be used in a business situation to distract from issues, avoid replying to your questions or give you feedback, so be aware!
Here are my thoughts on the key ingredients which make up British humour:
Bring to mind Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare, Caitlin Moran & Stephen Fry and you have British witty comments at their pinnacle. It’s a particular blend of dry humour, served with the merest hint of a raised eyebrow. One of my favourite comic characters has to be Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag in her asides to camera, which is for me one of the sharpest modern comedies.
“I would challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see you are unarmed.” Shakespeare
“You can never be overdressed or overeducated.” Oscar Wilde
“Don’t make me an optimist, you will ruin my life.” Fleabag
Real life humour:
Like a lot of cultures, the British like to find humour in the everyday normal & mundane. For insight into the comedy of the workplace, great examples are ‘The Office’ (British version) & BBC’s ‘W1A’, which was a mock ‘real life’ drama shadowing the management team in the BBC. The British like to make fun of people who are too arrogant or self-important, and you get a real sense of the subtle looks, body language & sarcasm that is at play.
Interestingly ‘The Office’ series was remade for the US because the key protagonist in the UK version, David Brent, was seen as too negative & unlikeable when it piloted, compared to Michael Scott’s character in the US version. Another instance of British negative humour at play!
For real life humour at home & socially, see ‘Motherland’ for cutting humour mocking middle-class parenthood in North London, plus the excellent ‘Chewing Gum’ which covers class, religion, family, friendship & sex for a black woman in East London.
Irony, sarcasm & understatement:
This seems to be the key to British humour DNA & it’s the part which is also the most confusing as language can be used deliberately to be clever, play with meanings & confuse. Watch ‘Sherlock’ to see how superior sarcasm works & Paul Hollywood giving feedback to contestants in ‘The Great British Bake Off’ to understand irony & understatement with a serious face. Alternatively, follow on twitter ‘Very British Problems’ for a good insight into this style of humour.
“Is it nice not being me? It must be so relaxing.” Sherlock
The eccentric or loveable fool:
A classic archetype, the British wouldn’t blink twice if somebody walked down the street almost naked & this acceptance of everybody as they are, no matter how bizarre, absurd or surreal, comes through strongly in humour as well. Classic British comedy sits in this category such as ‘Blackadder’, ‘Monty Python’, ‘Alan Partridge’ and ‘Mr Bean’, the last of which of course relies almost completely on non-verbal humour. The loveable fool includes characters we cannot help but love & laugh at simultaneously, and a great example of this is Del Boy from the 1980s comedy ‘Only Fools & Horses’ with his pretensions & money-making games.
“mange tout” : a classic Del Boy phrase which he thinks means ‘no problem’
“I am a black belt in origami” Del Boy
Playing on regional individuality & accents:
Although not overtly set up as comedies, you only have to watch ‘The Only Way is Essex’ (also known as TOWIE) & ‘Made in Chelsea’ to see regional differences & accents as the subject of humour. These programmes are ‘reality’ shows with some level of scripting & the longevity of the series testifies to their popularity with a number of phrases & words entering our everyday language, such as ‘obvs’ = ‘obviously’. For a deeper insight into British country life, I recommend the pretend reality comedy show ‘This Country’, which gives a view of young people in village life.
Self-mocking & self-deprecation:
The British like important people, major celebrities & leaders to be modest & humble (at least in appearances) and arrogance, showing off & aggressive self-promotion are viewed very negatively. British people prefer it when these types don’t take themselves too seriously & can laugh at themselves, which makes them more human & relatable. Even the Queen know this, as shown when she played herself in a Bond sketch for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in the UK. Although Hugh Grant is not a comedian, his style of comic acting is the ultimate embodiment of this self-mocking & -deprecating style.
Banter & teasing:
You will see this in action in the pub, when friends get together but even in some British meetings, especially between men. It’s a hard type of humour to decode & it particularly relies on private jokes, references to previous conversations & cultural contexts, or a play on words. To get some sense of how it works then look at the characters Smithy & Gavin in the comedy ‘Gavin & Stacey’, or the interaction between the 2 male characters Mark & Jez in ‘Peep Show’.
So, there you have it, an insight into British humour & how it works. So, tell me, who or what makes you laugh? What defines British humour for you?
If understanding British humour, culture or people better would benefit you for work or everyday life, find out about my British cultural individual coaching or training.