Ask Emma! “Are people joking or being nasty? I can’t tell the difference!”

Community Question:

“I have only been living in the UK for a year, but I am struggling to understand if people are joking or being nasty sometimes. How can I tell the difference?”

Building quality friendships and business acquaintances is vital if we are to lead a happy and fulfilling life, and a big part of this success is dependent on our conversation skills.

However, every culture has differing unwritten rules as to what is deemed as appropriate chit-chat, and the shared sense of humour also falls into this category.

It is widely acknowledged that only when one truly understands the latter does one fully understand a country. It’s also recognised that this is the last factor to be grasped when integrating into a new culture.

So, for all of the international ladies in this community I hope this article helps de-code some of the mystery:

The British sense of humour is often referred to as ‘dry’, meaning that it’s delivered deadpan, and it’s often sarcastic or ironic.

Now, and this is very important to understand, sarcasm is generally only reserved for those we know well and/or like. This is one of the biggest revelations for my clients when I explain this; the majority of the time others are not being nasty they are just teasing you!

For example, if you and I were work colleagues and perhaps you left the office early one day, I might say, “Thanks for coming in”.

This would be very typical of office banter, and only reserved for someone that I know well enough. It’s a form of endearment; if I don’t know you well, or I don’t particularly like you, then I would not tease you in this manner.

Banter? Ah yes, banter. So, most of us British love ‘good banter’ which is ‘the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks’.

We may well say that someone has a sharp sense of humour which means they are capable of fast exchanges of banter. There’s nothing that amuses us Brits more!

We also have a self-deprecating sense of humour, meaning we will put ourselves down; the British don’t like show-offs and egos. A humble attitude is the way forward.

When you combine these attributes, and throw in a little irony or satire, then you have the foundation of British humour.

My advice to you is this: If you don’t understand it, then don’t try to deliver it, it could go terribly wrong as it did for one of my American clients a few years ago:

Scenario: Dress down Friday:

British lady to American man: “Nice jacket, are you playing cricket later?” (sarcasm but unharmful).

American man to British lady: “Well at least I don’t dress like a man, like you” (this is what we would call ‘below the belt’, in other words, insulting).

So, what could he have done instead?

Option 1: Laugh and go along with the joke.

Option 2: Said, “Yes, I am meeting Ian Botham later, didn’t you know that I play for England?”

If there was an observer of this banter, they may well have said something like, “Back of the net!” (an expression of triumph on behalf of the American man).

All in all, a very satisfactory moment of office banter for all concerned, and now everyone can get on with their day jobs!

Don’t you just love the British sense of humour?