British (English) Humour

At a function to welcome the French ambassador to Tampa, a French officer from the MacDill base was talking about British humor. He had lived and worked in Britain, but did not enjoy it. “Ze humeur, eet eez terrible!” he said. “Zey are always laffing with ze eyes, and you neffer know what eez ze joke!”

Rowan Atkinson, icon of British humour

Rowan Atkinson, icon of British humour

I felt sorry for him, but also sorry for myself. I’ve come up with some good lines in my years in the US, but they nearly always crash and burn.

My Anglo-Indian father was educated in Britain, and our family thrives on the British humor that is rampant in South Africa. Our sons can  recite most episodes of Monty Python or Black Adder verbatim.

Sadly, it is usually only the culturally-fluent who “get” the sense of humor which the English-acculturated bring to the USA.  What’s more, British humour, by its very nature, is designed not to be explained.  But I’ll try…and quote a source or two.

1. The English are not serious.

There are people who believe that the English are a serious nation. Some even think they are dour. This sounds bizarre to anyone who knows British culture.

In fact, the English think that everything is about to become a joke. In Watching the English (by Kate Fox) she explains that the English have “a pervasive, all-embracing passion for humor. Humor is the English default method of operation.

“Humour” Fox says ” is one of our most ‘deeply-ingrained impulses’, a ‘default mode’ of behaviour, a ‘culture-all equivalent of the laws of gravity’.”

My one son’s company has something they call “the morning question.”  This is a team-building, fun question of the “Whom and what would you take with you to a desert island?” variety.

Monty Python transformed popular humour.

Monty Python transformed popular humour.

If one could get this going in a British company (“oh come off it!”) it would be hilarious, producing instantly funny, think-outside-the-box responses. The English are generally very current on politics and current affairs (all classes, professions etc tend to watch the news), so the news of the day would be well-represented.

I emailed a Brit engineer friend with a recent question: “What would you have for your last meal?” (This was just after Russia annexed Crimea.) Seconds later he replied:

“Meat… Putin’s balls, Obama’s brain, a pile of chips, hot sauce and as much beer as I could drink.”

This kind of response generally doesn’t align well with US culture. It would probably be the bottom of the barrel in a UK office, as everyone strove to top it with funnier answers.

People from non-Commonwealth nations often struggle to “do” English humor, because it is part of acculturation.  Just as Western cultures use the octave as a basis for music, so it takes time to hear and reproduce English humor.

Let’s look at three English jokes:

  1. There are three types of people in this world… Those who can count, and those who can’t.
  2. “Give me an alligator sandwich and make it quick.” (from Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett.)
  3. Wake up – you have to drive. I don’t want you driving into a pole – or even a russian.

These  jokes are typical of the British throw-away line, tossed into conversation with a completely straight face. If you ask an English(wo)man to repeat themselves, they probably won’t. It’s culturally correct to move on, without explaining the joke.

The culture also requires that one does not wait for a laugh or acknowledgment of wit. Any listener who catches the humour should respond, but with a groan, or rolling eyes, or saying “oh my God” (in a disgusted voice), or any other seemingly-negative (but playful) remark, expletives usually being completely acceptable.

The next challenge is to repeat the joke in a sequence. For instance, in Witches Abroad, Pratchett’s heroine keeps asking for the alligator sandwich. She wants it made immediately/right away/on the double etc. She never says “and make it snappy” of course. Explaining a pun or inference is an insult to your audience, so it can only be implied.

British history is full of such jokes:

Old Lady says to Winston Churchill: “Mr. Churchill. You are drunk!”
Churchill: “Madam, you are ugly. Tomorrow I shall be sober”

2. More Kate Fox: Watching the English

Fox, the daughter of a noted anthropologist, and honoured as an anthropologist in her own right, sees humour as a way in which the English handle a lack of ease (or dis-ease) in social situations:

“Humour is probably the most important of our three basic reflexes. It is our most effective built-in antidote to our social dis-ease. When God (or Something) cursed us with The English Social Dis-ease, He/She/It softened the blow by also giving us The English Sense of Humour.

“The English do not have any sort of global monopoly on humour, but what is distinctive is the sheer pervasiveness and supreme importance of humour in English everyday life and culture. In other cultures, there is ‘a time and a place’ for humour.  Among the English it is a constant, a given – there is always an undercurrent of humour. Virtually all English conversations and social interactions involve at least some degree of banter, teasing, irony, wit, mockery, wordplay, satire, understatement, humorous self-deprecation, sarcasm, pomposity-pricking or just silliness.

“Humour is not a special, separate kind of talk: it is our ‘default mode’; it is like breathing; we cannot function without it. English humour is a reflex, a knee-jerk response, particularly when we are feeling uncomfortable or awkward: when in doubt, joke. The taboo on earnestness is deeply embedded in the English psyche.”

Fox also explains how the English are very uncomfortable with seriousness, earnestness or sentimentality:

“Our response to earnestness is a distinctively English blend of armchair cynicism, ironic detachment, a squeamish distaste for sentimentality, a stubborn refusal to be duped or taken in by fine rhetoric, and a mischievous delight in pricking the balloons of pomposity and self-importance. (English humour is not to be confused with ‘good humour’ or cheerfulness – it is often quite the opposite; we have satire instead of revolutions and uprisings.)

“Key phrases include: ‘Oh, come off it!’ (Our national catchphrase, along with ‘Typical!’)

“English humour is often about context.  A common theme is understatement: ‘Not bad’ (means outstandingly brilliant); ‘A bit of a nuisance’ (means disastrous, traumatic, horrible); ‘Not very friendly’ (means anything from very hostile to abominably cruel); ‘I may be some time’ (meaning ‘I’m going to die’).”  [Fox, Pages 402-3]

3. Everyone suffers

Many people who work with or for UK companies find English (or British) humour a real problem, and face a steep learning curve. But spare a moment to pity those who are deeply British acculturated, and live and/or work in other cultures.

In US culture,  their “straight-faced but intentionally-humorous gambits” are often seen as bewildering,  insulting or simply proof that they are very strange people.

Their tantalizing but oblique puns are ignored or (worse) congratulated.  Their black humour falls into the category of “talking about disagreeable things is disagreeable.” Their whole beloved realm of politics and religion (which is the natural area of British conversation after the weather) is suddenly taboo.

One additional problem in US situations is that many normal English/British words are considered bad language in the US, while none of these has much of a connotation of being swearing in English culture. For the curious, these are damn, hell, bloody, bugger, bastard and bitch.

When it comes to real swearing (which is often used in jokes) the British and Commonwealth cultures swear much more than the US. There is also a fundamental misunderstanding about swearing between the two cultures. A distaste for or fear of swearing is rather “lower-middle class” in Britain and the colonies. Educated professionals, the ‘upper-middle-class’, ‘county gentry,’ aristocrats and the royal family swear freely, as do working-class folk.

Read more about the ‘lower middle class’ here (in British humour style:) or in Jilly Cooper’s Class – a ridiculously British review of British society.

4. British humo(u)r jokes: Send your joke to and I will add it.

From the classified ads:

Free Yorkshire Terrier. 8 years old, hateful little bastard. Bites.

Free Puppies. 1/2 Cocker Spaniel, 1/2 sneaky neighbour’s dog.

Free Puppies. Mother is a Kennel Club registered German Shepherd. Father is a Super Dog, able to leap tall fences in a single bound.

Cows for sale. Never bred. Also one gay bull for sale.

Washer and dryer for sale. Must sell. Joining nudist colony.  £100.

Wedding dress for sale. Worn once by mistake. Call Stephanie.

The British suffer from severe lexophilia – they often love crossword puzzles and things to do with words. Puns flourish and they like those jokes where  a word can be used in multiple ways (‘you can  tune a piano, but you can’t tuna fish’, or ‘to write with a broken  pencil is pointless.’)

If there is a darker meaning, or a vulgar one, that is definitely a good thing.


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