Humour in the UK

Published 26th October 2012
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I think one of the defining characteristics of being British is our unique sense of humour and use of sarcasm which is employed on a daily basis in just about anywhere – schools, office, hospitals, homes and more. It is something which, as a nation, we assume others will understand.

Yet, not everyone does. I have a friend from the Netherlands who I visited earlier this year and on one of the days we went for a bike ride out in the countryside. As we collected the bikes, I made some self-depreciating remark about how I had not been on a bike for years and would probably fall off. However, instead of laughing, my Dutch friend looked slightly concerned and asked whether I knew how to ride a bike. I reassured her that I did and that I had been joking but it made me wonder why I had used the joke in the first place.

I have since spoken to other friends who have had similar experiences in Europe (not with bikes admittedly) and have found it made them a little uneasy because you come to realise how heavily you rely on humour as a way of building rapport with people. One of my friends had a more positive experience abroad though when he was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. He said that the guides who came up the mountain with them understood the British humour and sarcasm, which must have been a blessing, especially as he was enduring a lot of pain while walking up the mountain and used humour as a good distraction.

I have also spoken to people who have moved to the UK from abroad and they said one thing they picked up on and had to learn quite quickly was this use of humour. Now, it’s second nature to them but in the beginning I can imagine it is a very strange concept.

Despite people not always grasping our attempts at humour, when you become aware of it, you start to realise what a big role it plays in everyday conversation.

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