“Really, I don’t see why anthropologists feel they have to travel to remote corners of the world and get dysentery and malaria in order to study strange tribal cultures with bizarre beliefs and mysterious customs, when the weirdest, most puzzling tribe of all is right here on our doorstep.” – Kate Fox
Social anthropologist Kate Fox, a Cambridge graduate in her field and author of numerous works including the bestseller ‘Watching the English’: perhaps the most comprehensive and accurate assessment of English behaviour in recent times. With great appreciation and respect for such a thorough and fun undertaking, we will start out on the right foot in our search for all things English. Not surprisingly we begin with that all-pervasive multi-purpose trait: the English sense of humour. Indeed, you may succeed in avoiding many of their peculiar pastimes like milk in your tea, playing cricket for 5 days non-stop, and/or driving on the left, but when it comes to their humour there is no escape. As our expert states:
‘For the English, the rules of humour are the cultural equivalent of natural laws – we obey them automatically, rather in the way that we obey the law of gravity.’
As Mrs Fox explains, in England you will meet many English citizens, (myself included), who tend to hold the belief that they have some sort of ‘global monopoly’ on humour, especially wit and irony. However accurate or not, such an attitude arises, quite understandably, by the fact humour on that little green rock is both omnipresent and omnipotent so much so that: ‘while in other cultures there is a time and a place for humour; a special, separate kind of talk, in English conversation, ‘there is always an undercurrent of humour.’ You must visualize humour as an Englishman’s ‘default mode’ that ‘we do not have to switch on deliberately but we cannot switch it off.’
Just stop and think for a second of the ramification this has for you. Firstly, as a foreigner you must accept there will be occasions when you may feel a little bemused, awkward and no doubt offended when jokes are being fired within circumstances you would normally assume to be inopportune. Are you ready to cope with all that banter, teasing, irony, understatement, humourous self-deprecation, mockery or just plain silliness? If you are the type who tends to be easily offended, or feel your whole world has been desecrated by a clown and his comical ‘attacks’ on your person, your family, ( including your beloved mother), and/or country, then you’d better do some meditation before you get off the plane.
Puns are a favourite!
Indeed, we can conceivably envisage a scenario where you find yourself bursting with satisfaction for having caught what someone has just said, only to begin simmering in anger when its full significance sinks home. Well, we do say,’ ignorance is bliss’. But take heart: this is not a harsh learning process solely for non English speaking foreigners. A good old American friend of mine who once lived here in Italy – shot off one weekend to Ireland. While it sounded a fantastic idea at the time, on his return this forever smiling, optimistic but also street wise American was visibly shocked by the beating his pride had taken by tipsy Irish women in particular who’d shown him no mercy. He was left utterly bemused by the sarcasm and cutting jibes that he was incapable of defending himself from.
Potential misinterpretations by frustrated foreigners are compounded by the endemic prevalence of irony. Mrs Fox quotes the playwright Alan Bennet who through one of his characters stated: ‘the English are conceived in irony. We float in it from the womb, its the amniotic fluid ….joking but not joking. Caring but not caring. Serious but not serious.’ And just when you thought irony or any kind of comedy has disappeared remember that it is at that moment when you really have to be on your guard since ‘the English may not always be joking but we are always in a state of readiness for humour. We do not always say the opposite of what we mean, but we are always alert to the possibility of irony.
In similar vein J.B priestly is also poignantly cited thus: ‘the atmosphere in which we English live is favourable to humour. It is also often hazy , and very rarely is everything clear-cut’. As such it is hardly surprising then that an American once told Mrs Fox, ‘the problem with the English is that ‘you never know when they are joking – you never know whether they are being serious or not.’
All I can say is Good luck on your journey…