American Humor Vs. British Humour

Brits are famous for their bone-dry wit, and the contrast between American and British humor seems to be a popular topic. I’ve addressed it briefly in other posts, but a further consideration of humor seems warranted, and I’m also going to explore the ever-popular charge that Americans don’t have a sense of irony.  (I found Simon Pegg’s piece after I wrote mine and am very happy to see that I’m not alone in my conclusions.)

First, I’ll toss out a number of varieties of humor, and briefly cover the difficulty of translating one culture’s humor to another.  Types of humor: dry, clever/lofty, slapstick, deadpan, satirical, theatrical/dramatic, absurd, self-deprecating, dark/black, silly/goofy.

Humor is tough to translate culturally.  I could offer many examples of this, but the one I remember most is a story about a German woman that I used to work with at a US public library.  She spoke perfect English, and she often appeared to me as stereotypically German–stoic, serious, well-read and orderly about her work. She was tough to talk to because she just wasn’t a chatty person, and I don’t consider myself that chatty, but in comparison I looked like a sorority girl. Sometimes I would try to make a joke with her but always they fell flat, and she would give me this look like she was worried for me.

Anyway, one day she came up to me all excited and she was smiling–I had never seen her face lit up like that. I realized that in the two years I’d worked with her, I’d never seen her teeth before.  She was holding a Dave Eggers book (H.B.W.O.S.G.) and on the back flap photo was a shot of the author with a dog, accompanying a brief biography and at the end, “This is not his dog.”  This sent my co-worker into spasms of laughter.  I thought it was funny too but not dying of laughter funny.  Still, I was glad she’d found something to make her day, and I thought about how lonely it must be to not be able to be German-funny with us at work.

And at the same time, I myself was American, but there were many instances in which I wanted to make a joke at work but couldn’t because my sense of humor was too dry or dark for a lot of my co-workers.

Which brings me to my point, which is that American humor is varied, even though there probably is a banal, Stars & Stripes generic stereotype.

I often hear that “Americans have no sense of irony.”  This might be true of many, but I guess I hate to be lumped in with this group.  Irony, especially in the stalwart Midwestern town where I grew up, probably saved my sanity.  I will never forget finding Mad Magazine when I was about seven or eight, and thinking “Wow–there are others like me.”  I loved Tex Avery cartoons, comic books, and any other artform that utilized irony and satire.

With the advent of Sesame Street, a whole generation was introduced to an irreverent sensibility at an early age. Granted, this wasn’t the height of sophistication, but watching clips while a nanny in my twenties, I was surprised at all of the jokes for adults.  There’s Kermit the Frog’s News Flash on Sesame Street, the weird parody of an orange performing Carmen’s “L’Amour” on the kitchen countertop.  Not to mention all the inside political and cultural jokes on The Muppet Show.

After the muppets and Mad Magazine, there was Saturday Night Live. SNL rides the shirt-tails of genius sketch comedy like Monty Python, and no one, including myself, would ever question the brilliant delivery of comedy actors like John Cleese.  Still, SNL covers quite a few kinds of humor, and much of it is ironic. Maybe there is a difference, though, in a British sense of irony and an American one?   British humor does sharper and often more clever than mainstream American humor, but non-mainstream American humor can be quite sharp as well.

SNL is one of the biggest icons of humor in America, and it’s sort of been a touchstone, one of those rare pleasures that spans the ages.  I’ve been watching SNL since I was in middle school, if not earlier, and  it’s thrilling that such a show has survived since the 70’s and has given so many talents a start in the business.

The notion of characters comes to mind, American literature and film being very character-driven in the context of the “individual.”   Has this influenced the American vs. British sense of humor?  Would Molly Shannon have created Mary Catherine Gallagher if she’d been born a Brit?  Sally O’Mally?   Would Chris Farley have created his motivational speaker Matt Foley who warns of “living in a van, down by the river”?

Something that an English media studies teacher once said to me about American vs. British culture also comes to mind.  He said that in British coming of age films, the challenge is about figuring out how to fit into the rest of the society.  In other words, existing with the group.  On the other hand, American coming of age films deal with the individual and identity–who is that person on his or her own, and how that person can be authentic.

Does this affect our sense of humor?   It must.

American humor is often irreverent, perhaps as a necessary antidote to American earnestness.  To start, there’s  The Onion, The Colbert Report, and Bill Maher.  There are plenty of other examples of American irreverence (The Simpsons), and the American political/cultural divide offers no end to opportunities to lambast the religious right-wing.  Irreverence is something we share with the Brits, I think, even if it happens for different reasons.

There’s a lot to love about British humor, and I’ve known plenty of Americans who prefer it.  One of my favorite British sketches is The Ministry of Silly Walks.  To an outsider, this is a comment on the British sense of tradition and  doing things in the right way, especially as opposed to the American notion, which would be to find a new, more individual way to do something.  Since living in the UK I’ve also discovered Mock the Week, which I love, even though I don’t always get the references.

When my husband and I first starting dating, he shared The Oatmeal with me, and hyperboleandahalf.com.  30 Rock, Modern Family, SNL, and movies like The Wedding Crasher also provided common ground.  Darker comedy like Zach Galifianakis and Arrested Development works for both of us, but I don’t share my husband’s appreciation of British sitcoms like Only Fools and Horses, probably as I didn’t grow up with them.  My husband also doesn’t get Seinfeld at all, which still amazes me.  “It’s not about anything,” he says.  (Yes–exactly!)  What is it about that show that doesn’t cross the US/UK divide?  Are there other Brits who like it?

Blackadder Goes Forth is hilarious, and we’re both also fans of Whose Line is It Anyway, which began as a British improv show and then the US followed with a version hosted by Drew Carey.

One thing I’ve noticed about humor is that the sense of being self-deprecating for men seems different.  There doesn’t seem to be a “Don’t Emasculate Me” button in England.  I was shocked the first time I heard jokes that would be considered very emasculating, especially in regard to couples, and an invitation by my husband for me to join in.   I’ve also heard guys make comments about men vs. women (such as joking about men being useless except for their contributions to procreation) that would be viewed as pathetic in the US.

I realize that I’ve only just grazed the surface here.  There are so many different other worlds to explore–Welsh humor, Irish humor, African-American humor, Jewish American….  What we find funny, though, is a wonderful lens in which to view our cultures.

Favorite examples of British or American humor anyone?  …Anyone?

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British Culture Social Taboos

British social taboos–what are they?   After nine months of being here, I still feel clueless.  I know that Brits generally regard Americans as louder, more arrogant, and geographically ignorant, but if we still venture out and risk making fools of ourselves, what rules might we avoid?

Before coming to the UK, I tried to read up a bit about major social do’s and don’ts.  I read that Brits frown on tardiness, overt religious references, and that they have a hard time accepting earnest compliments.   They take their tea seriously from what I can tell, no matter how manly the man, so don’t mess with their cup.   (A hilarious parody of all the herbal varieties of tea out there and manliness right here.)

I’ve noticed, in some group situations, that women will speak very quietly, often at an inaudible level.   A few other expats have remarked that British women usually adhere more to traditional female roles, and might avoid appearing aggressive, confident, or dynamic.  Of course this exists in the US too, and as a previous tomboy/princess-warrior/Tank Girl, I’ve rarely felt comfortable in traditional female environs.  In London, it’s all tights, skirts, and heels, and almost always straightened long hair.  Not so many earthy, sporty girls.

Does not worry about being nice.

WWTGD?

Hugging.  I know that’s a no-no.  When I first met C.’s family, I asked what I should do–if I should hug them, shake hands, or do the cheek kiss.

“Nothing, he said.  “Definitely not hugging.  Don’t hug them.”

I was a little worried, as that’s how I convey warmth where I’m from.  To not even shake hands would seem cold.  It did.

The shaking hands thing seems very awkward, especially in professional or semi-professional situations.   I never know if I should shake, which would be my usual inclination, or to not shake.  If in a casual situation in the US, some folks, especially if female and shy, might not shake and that would be fine, but if one extended a hand that would rarely look weird.  I’m never sure if it looks weird here or not.

Hugging tigers: a no-brainer.

One thing I have observed is that people don’t talk about what they “do” as much as they do in the US, and they rarely ask.   Definitely appreciate this, and would even if I was working.  And no inquiries about where I went to school, which is such a big issue in the US.

I guess the other thing would be being personal in any way–making folks who are reserved uncomfortable.  I’m sure this varies from person to person, but I’ve definitely felt that I need to avoid saying anything about my life whatsoever with some sets of company.  This causes all sorts of confusion with C. and me, because he maintains that people want to get to know me, but since I can’t read people here I sometimes get self-conscious that I’m too expressive, too open, just plain too much in contrast to the English. When I get excited I talk with my hands, I raise my voice, and may even (gasp!) use fanciful language (one of C.’s favorite accusations). C. is constantly telling me “use my inside voice” and says that I exaggerate. (Gasp again.)

Along with the being too personal thing, I often feel too blunt, which is something I struggled with a lot in Richmond.  Chicagoans don’t mince words, and also being a Sagittarius (or it’s my personality if you’re one who thinks the stars don’t mean a thing), I have the tendency to tell it like it is.  I’m guessing that this is a taboo…?

I’ve also noticed that the level of formality is very different, and I might appear crass or rude by not observing the same level of formality.  For example, C.’s mom might come by for lunch or to help with something.  When parting, one of them might say “thank you ever so much for helping today,” along with a few other pleasantries.  The thanking part seems long, overdone and formal to me, especially for a family member.  I’ve experienced the same in a small interaction, say, at a small grocery store.  C. might say “thank you ever so much.”  In the US, there might be a bit of banter, and a “have a good one,” where I’m from, but not a semi-formal thank-you.  The wish of having a good evening, afternoon, etc. is something that I miss, actually, and the colloquial “take it easy,” or “take care.”  In VA, sometimes “take it easy darlin’.”

C. also gets upset if I don’t use please or thank you all the time.  Once, in a moment of total informality I said, “Gimme your camera,” trying to catch a quick shot before it was gone.  C. was offended.

While I appreciate C.’s politeness, it would just never be natural for me to say “May I please use your camera?” to my partner or spouse.  I might say  “Can I have the camera?”  It’s colloquial, relaxed language, but in C.’s family it seems that formality always remains.

What about restaurants?   I’m gluten-intolerant, and the other night I asked if I could have something without the bread, and the server seemed vexed. From what I’ve read, this makes Americans look demanding.  Obviously one should be reasonable, and all I did was ask if it was possible and when the server said no, that was fine.

The knife and fork thing seems to be a big one.  Americans often eat with just a fork, and may cut some meat with the edge of the fork, which I think is seen as sort of crude here. Here one is supposed to push food onto the fork with the knife and then take a bite with the left hand, off the fork.  Too old a dog for such new tricks?

Customer service. It’s different here, but I’m not sure how, exactly.  While trying to navigate the teacher qualification nightmare, I’ve had brush-offs by a number of people, but they were polite about it.  Truth be told, I would much rather someone be a jerk, but give me the information I wanted, without the obligation for a ten minute long thank-you.  Sometimes niceties are enjoyable, but sometimes you just want to ask a question and get an answer.

One place that has impressed me is Tesco, in that once I asked if there were any carts inside, as I ran out of hand and arm room, and the clerk went and GOT me one.   Holy schnikey–that was nice.

And then there’s eating.  Talking while eating (not with one’s mouth open, of course, but just in general)–I wonder about this one sometimes, as C.’s family is notably silent while eating.   If I say anything other than that something is tasty, I feel like I’m doing something wrong. To me it’s very awkward to eat in silence–that indicates tension, that something’s wrong.

Not eating dessert–is this terribly unpolite or just another family thing?  If one doesn’t want dessert should one prepare an effusive apology…?

The weather.  I’ve read that it’s ok for Brits to complain about it, but that if foreigners do, it’s annoying.  True?

Thanks in advance for any contribution to a chat about figuring out the British.

British Vs. American English

I decided that I need to start a list of words that I come across, so here we go.  I’ll update it from time to time.  If I’ve misunderstood a word, please let me know and I’ll correct it!

Basics:

  • Hen party–bachelorette party
  • Leaving-do–going away party
  • Till–checkout counter
  • Tip–the dump
  • Petrol–gas
  • Biscuit–cookie
  • Nappy–diaper
  • Prawn–small shrimp
  • Courgette–zucchini
  • Coriander–cilantro
  • Trainers–tennis shoes
  • Dolly shoes–mary janes
  • Digger–bulldozer
  • Lorry–truck
  • Plaster–bandaid
  • Garden–yard   (and garden for garden)
  • Trolley–shopping cart
  • “The shops”–instead of saying “grocery store”
  • Gammon–ham
  • Uni/university–university but not college.  College is around age 16-18, before university.
  • Roadworks–road construction
  • Motorway–highway
  • Indicator–blinker, or turn signal
  • Chav–derogatory term.  “trailor trash”
  • Cinema–movie
  • Carrier bag–plastic bag from store
  • Proper–as in “We’ll get you a proper carry-on next weekend.”   or   “It’s a proppa sunny day innit.”    I don’t think there’s an American equivalent here; it’s a colloquial term.
  • Hoover–vaccuum

Note:  Julia has some great comments in the comment section about the variants of cookie/biscuit (how gooey center is, etc.), gammon (a cut of ham), and digger/bulldozers.

Some British words that I particularly like:

  • Wanker.  ”Yeah, it’s probably from the wankers over at Fox News.”
  • Moreish. Something that’s so good you want more of it.  Have only heard it used in relation to food so far.  Thai prawn crackers to be precise.  ”They’re rather moreish, aren’t they.”
  • Bloody.  No explanation necessary.
  • Sod.  (While we’re at it.)  ”S*d off.”
  • Lollipop man/woman. (see last driving piece for pic.)  This is a crossing guard.   Now what do you want to be when you grow up?
  • Sorted. This appears to be a favorite, and I can see why.  It’s just like the US “settled,” but fewer Little House on the Prairie connotations.
  • Dodgy.  Quite a variety of uses, but probably best US translation is “sketchy.”
  • Whingy. Whiny.  Very satisfying word.  Sounds just like an annoying, creaky gate.
  • Pants.  As in “This website is pants.”   Or “Oh, pants.  I forgot my keys.”
  • Torch.  This is a flashlight.
  • Beaker. Plastic cup.
  • Brilliant. I can’t do the accent for this at all, but it’s wonderful.  Tomato soup can be brilliant.  A crouton can be brilliant.  It’s also a good sarcastic word, like if a train is cancelled.   It’s sort of the British version of great.
  • Gorgeous.  Likewise, a salad can be gorgeous, even if it’s not pretty.  Sort of a synaesthesia kind of thing.

And some that I’m not used to yet:

  • Whilst.   This makes me feel like I’m in a Jane Austen novel wearing a corset, riding in a bumpy carriage, unable to breathe at the thought of my domestic plight.  Just sounds very formal.
  • Jumper.  This is a sweater, I think, but I’ve also heard it used for a sweatshirt or a hoodie.  I always think of a horrible, shapeless plaid dress, which is what jumpers are in the States.
  • Nice.  I’m not fond of this word anyway, unless it’s used for the weather or maybe a shirt.  But I’ve noticed that here it’s used for anything from a cookie to chicken salad.   Because so many Americans use nice as a euphemism (saying, for example, “Oh, she’s nice,” when really you don’t like the person and so you say that she’s nice), I always think that any time food is called nice, it’s sarcastic, even though I know that’s not the intended meaning.  Just one of those connotation issues.
  • One-off.  At first I heard this used as a one night stand, but then I heard it in other contexts, so I’m not entirely sure of the scope.
  • Bespoke.  This drives me insane.  I guess it means “custom,” as in “custom-made tires” or something.  It doesn’t seem to mean anything and just seems shoved in front of nouns with the notion that it will distinguish them, especially in terms of advertising.
  • Adding, “don’t they,” or “haven’t I,” to the end of a sentence.  Depending on the intonation it can sound quite snarky.  Maybe Brits feel similarly when Americans say, “you know?”

Added by readers:

  • Tosser–jerk, or maybe worse..?  I’m not sure if this is really impolite or just kind of.  Like would you say it around your grandma?  (Was notified that wanker is worse than tosser.)
  • Snog–make out
  • Shag–have sex
  • Postcode–zipcode
  • Subway–pedestrian underpass?
  • Roundabout–traffic circle
  • Single (ticket)–one-way
  • Return (ticket)–round-trip
  • Pavement–sidewalk (not sure we really have the equivalent of American “pavement” … maybe just “the road”)
  • Rubbish–trash
  • Bugger–“bugger off you bloody sod”
  • Spanner–wrench
  • Skirting–baseboards
  • Made redundant–laid-off
  • Skip–dumpster
  • Central reservation–median/median strip
  • The High Street–downtown
  • Aubergine–eggplant

Other notable words and phrases:

  • “Gone all pear-shaped”     This is when something’s gone wrong.
  • The big one:  trousers vs. pants.  Pants=underwear here.  Our pants are always trousers.  At some point, I’m going to embarrass myself, probably the first day on a new job, by telling someone that I like his or her pants.   Hasn’t happened yet, but it will.
  • Ginger ale=ginger beer.  I think.  But I still hear ginger ale sometimes, so I’m still a little confused by this one.
  • Cake.  Still figuring this one out.  I made cornbread for a family meal, and even though I kept telling C. it wasn’t cake,  it was cake to him.   He also calls cookies cakes sometimes, which confuses me.  It seems that a lot of things can be cake…?
  • Pudding.  This will require at least two more years of study.  Basically, pudding covers lots of desserts eaten at the holidays, some drenched in liquor to keep them moist and then sometimes lit on fire at the table.  They look like bundt cakes and the chocolate ones can be moist and delicious.   (Note:  Dan A. says that “Pudding is any type of dessert eaten after a main savoury course often with custard. For example bread pudding, queens pudding or the venerable spotted dick.”   This helps Dan!)
  • Tea.  Tea is tea, but it’s also dinner.  ”I’m eating my tea.”  Very confusing.  (Is your tea frozen??)    Nope, it’s just dinner in England, where you eat tea in the evening.

I know there are more that I’ve come across.  There are usually a few a week.  Add any others you can think of in comments and I’ll post ‘em to the list!

The Art of Complaining

Ok, I give up.  I’ve tried to be a bit more soft-spoken, but apparently you can take the girl out of America, but you can’t take the brash American out of the girl.   And the brash quality I’m missing today is complaining.   I’m sure there are Brits who can complain with the best of them, but unfortunately, I’m currently in a microcosm of character.  The nerve of these people, what with their gratitude and discipline, talking about how fortunate they are.  Don’t they know that it’s all a race to get as much as possible in this life?   Haven’t they heard of self-centeredness?  Sheesh.

Last night I was flipping channels, killing my usual zombie time where I can’t sleep but I’m just waiting to get sleepy, and I found Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations.  He was showing the footage that didn’t make earlier shows—asides about how much he felt like retching from the previous night’s debauchery.   He had one great line, coming out of his hotel in Iceland to a pitch-black, bleak morning, wearing a puffy jacket and sunglasses, joking about how what he really felt like in that moment was being around lot of people and cameras, being friendly, and consuming the grilled intestinal parts of various animals.

Yeah, I guess it sucks to be even Anthony Bourdain sometimes.

Poor you!

 

But it got me thinking as to why he’s so refreshing lately, and it’s gotta be because he doesn’t hold back with the complaints.   I think I’ve said this before on BPRB—I really miss fast-paced, neurotic, dramatic people.  Throw in some well-placed complaints and I will worship at your feet right about now.

Here’s what the Brits don’t seem to realize about complaining—it’s an art form.  With hyperbole, a flair for character and jabby one-liners, it’s just street theater.  And who doesn’t like a little street theater?

Can we all just please stop and acknowledge how much it sucks to be herded into the Tube Station at Oxford Street during rush hour like a herd of cattle to slaughter?    Can we?   Oh please?

Shoot me.

I don’t cram myself down to the platforms every day, and would be so much more crabby if I did.  Is that possible?   More crabbiness?   (Ah, the neighbor kid just started playing his video games two feet from where I’m sitting, on the other side of the wall.  Beep, beep, boop, beep-boo-bee-bee-bee.   Yes, heightened crabbiness is possible.)

That was one good thing about teaching high schoolers.  A lot of them didn’t have game faces yet.  They’d come fainting in to my classroom, surrendering their massive backpacks to the desk with a thud.  Then they’d launch into a monologue about their horrendous day.    I don’t miss a lot of things about being in the classroom, but I do miss the teenage sense of drama and melodrama, a quality I’ve decided to hang on to for, oh, maybe just a few decades longer than necessary.

Perhaps the best moment of British complaint I’ve seen was on the television shows Grumpy Old Men and Grumpy Old Women.

I am a grumpy old woman trapped in the body of a not-yet old grumpy woman.

As curmudgeons go, they’re ok, but I think Anthony Bourdain might have them beat, with the ability to sun himself in the Mediterranean, devour the best food on the planet, and still somehow maintain his capacity for the tragic.

Anyone know of any local complaint-friendly venues?   Complaint salons?   Any pound-per-minute complaint hotlines?

The irony is that the Brits, as far as I’m concerned, should get a free pass to complain whenever they want with the gloomy weather. That’s enough right there.   Add in the ultra-crowded conditions and ridiculous cost of absolutely everything, and everyone should have a Recommended Daily Allowance of complaining.   You should take it in the morning with your Omega-3 Fatty Acids or your flax seed.  Truly, they’re looking a gift horse in the mouth.   I guess someone else will just have to do their complaining for them.   Good thing I’m here.

Expat Tips, or What I’ve Learned So Far

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Get as many records as possible from your doctors before leaving. Getting them sent over may prove a Herculean task, due to varying laws and regulations, and may prevent you from getting care.

If you ship your own boxes over, save the labels and compare them with your receipts so you can check off what’s arrived and what hasn’t. This way, you’ll avoid “has it gotten lost in the mail” anxiety, which is not fun.

“Y’alright?” doesn’t mean “Oh my God are you okay,” but is just a casual greeting.

It will cost you 30 p to uh, pee at Victoria Station. And you must have the correct coin combinations. No five pence coins. Lines, or the queue, will form quickly behind you, so get your coins ready.

Hang on to your train ticket. Every time I throw it out it seems it’s too early. Here are the times that it’s too early to throw out your train ticket:

1. Once you arrive at your destination
2. After you use the facilities INSIDE the train station of your
destination
3. Once you’ve left the train station

Why? Why hang on to it? Because A) you need it to get out the turnstiles in the station or you will get a big nasty fine and B) the OUT ticket looks almost exactly like the RET ticket, and if you toss the wrong one, your husband who has just had a marathon-ish long day will be really irritated, but will be very nice about it, which will make you feel worse, especially if you have about thirty seconds to get on the train before it pulls away. That’s why. Just HANG ON to those tickets and you can wrap Christmas gifts with them, collage style, or tape a bunch together and use them as mailing envelopes. You can use them as coasters for your tea party with the foxes. Just don’t, for the love of all creatures great and small, throw them out before you’ve used both tickets in your journey.

Speaking of foxes, that weird sound you hear every day that sounds like a dog whose vocal cords have been altered is indeed a fox. Even though you never see it, it calls all day, sort of like a rooster, and it’s not a pleasant sound, so will always make you kind of sad.

If you’re at a bar or club and are not drinking-drinking, don’t ask for Ginger Ale. They will look at you like you’re insane. Don’t ask for Sprite either. Ask for Ginger Beer (like Ginger Ale) or Lemonade, which is like Sprite.

Don’t put too much money on your Oyster Tube card because if you lose it right after topping it off, you’ll be mad.

Molasses is called “Black Treacle.” When the store clerk at the supermarket tells you what it is, you’ll think he’s saying “Black Trickle.” Much fun will be had by all involved–store clerk, and near-by shoppers. Silly American.

I will be making a chart of US/UK terms I’ve encountered so far, but the biggest ones are: “the till” which is the cashier, “the tip” which is the junkyard or dump, and of course, “the boot” which is the trunk of the car. But we all know the last one. There are about a hundred of these, and I learn a new one each day.

About time–things will take time, and then they might take some more time. For whatever reason, I seem to be moving through molasses that no one is in but me. You really can’t prepare for all the change beforehand. You just have to do as much as possible to make the transition easier, and then just jump in.

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