Bridging the Humour Divide: America vs Britain

Yanks don’t quite get sarcasm, do they?

It’s a Tuesday morning. I walk down the corridor, stomach grumbling with anticipation. From the corner of my eye, I see my friend leave her room. She sees me. Our fate is sealed. What follows has become something of a ritual: dancing with our middle fingers stretched gloriously in the air, gurning, and yelling all sorts of insults which we learnt in our enlightening formative years. There is nothing unusual about this. Even the politest of Brits can be heard greeting their friends with ‘wanker’, ‘dickhead’ or various other terms of endearment.

Unfortunately, some of our American cousins didn’t get the memo. It was on that very same Tuesday morning that we were caught engaging in our obligatory ritual by one of our American friends as she happened to be walking past.

‘Why are you guys being so mean?’ she asked, as a look of genuine concern washed over the freckles on her face.

Initially I was surprised that she seemed so worried, so invested in the future of our relationship. But why was her reaction odd? To anyone sane and rational, the sight of two people flipping the bird and abusing each other would be enough to cause some degree of concern. But to those of us who have sampled the delights of the British education system, there is nothing remotely unusual about it.

Mr Bean, anther example of weird British humour.
Mr Bean, anther example of weird British humour.

The fact is, we are rude to people precisely because we like them. We feel confident and comfortable enough to exchange flagrant insults, to make obscene gestures and facetious comments, all in the knowledge that our actions merely serve to demonstrate the strength of our relationship. If my friend had greeted me with a cordial ‘hello’ I would wonder what I had done to annoy them.

This divide in humour seems to worm its way into all facets of our social interactions. While it is universally agreed that the word ‘banter’ has been exhausted out of meaning, there is an affectionate sort of jesting that we seem to employ at every opportunity, one that isn’t always easy for all Americans to translate.

Tell your British friend that their brand new jumper you wish you could afford is disgusting and you can expect the middle finger or a biting retort. Say the same to your American friend and be prepared to be met with an expression of bafflement and offence in equal measure.

Photo: Monty Python
Photo: Monty Python

St Andrews brings together British and Americans in a way that very few of either party have experienced. As someone who has spent their entire life in the bland and homogenous Home Counties, the ability to meet entirely new people from entirely new places is an exciting experience. But, despite our shared language, there exists a minefield of social and cultural differences between us.

That is not to say that Americans are fundamentally incapable of understanding British humour. Neither do the British regard American humour as unsophisticated or unfunny (not the more sympathetic of us, at least). But, to continue the minefield metaphor, it is important to tread carefully.

So let us pause before we casually insult our American friends, or indulge in shameless episodes of sarcastic jibes.

And, as for my friend who found us on that Tuesday morning, the middle finger I so brazenly employed was not an insult; it was a proud beacon of respect, a pillar standing tall and lifting our friendship to the skies. We do not hate each other. And if, unthinkingly, a British person insults you, please don’t be offended. It means we rather like you, after all.

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