As a non-native arriving in Britain, there will be some challenges while learning the language and culture. Particularly when it comes to humour. It may take some time to fully understand British, but learning to recognise it will help you master the language.
What is British Humour?
Brits have a wide sense of humour. British comedy is so mixed and comes in many forms. When it comes to the British sense of humour, nothing is off-limits. They use it in everyday conversation. It helps to put people at ease and teaches you to laugh when things are getting you down.
Often spoken with a blank-face, you may often find yourself wondering if someone is actually joking. This is just part of the nature and beauty of British humour.
So to get you started on your path to learning, here are our top tips to help you understand British humour.
Laugh at yourself
British people are very modest. They don’t like to take themselves too seriously. They enjoy self-deprecating humour.
They make fun of themselves. By making light of their own failures, they become more humble and friendly.
So when people make fun of themselves, it is an invitation to laugh and feel comfortable with them. They are welcoming you and showing you they are easy going and not a threat.
Brits Love a Good Banter and Tease
The British also like to make jokes about each other. This is also known as “taking the mickey” and is not taken seriously. Brits may be seen as polite and serious, and deeply rooted in the class system, but everyone loves to make fun of everyone else.
Sources of teasing many include age, appearance, habits or the range of British accents available to poke fun at each other. It is good-natured and common joking between friends.
When a new British friend makes a joke about you that seems critical or even mean, it is actually a form of acceptance. It is meant to be friendly and light-hearted. It means they like you.
So when someone makes fun of you, you know they feel comfortable with you.
Sarcasm and Irony
Irony describes a situation that is the opposite of what you would expect. For example, a fire station that burns down. Or just as you are about to go outside to start a barbeque on a clear and sunny day, it begins to rain.
Sarcasm involves saying the opposite of what is actually meant, like if someone does something wrong or drops something, another will say ‘Well done! Good job’ It is often used to make fun of someone else, but should always be light and respectful. It is often used to make a point and lies at the core of British humour.
Sarcasm can be hard to spot but look out for more stress put on certain words or a smile that may follow what has been said.
Brits love a character who says and does the wrong thing at the wrong time in a social situation. They are sometimes so awkward and embarrassing they make you cringe.
Take, for example, the comedic character Alan Partridge. He thinks very highly of himself. He believes he is better than everyone else. He has no idea how to behave in social situations, so he always says the wrong thing to the wrong person.
Or the character of Basil Fawlty in the comedy show Fawlty Towers. He always messes everything up and ruins things with his own pride, and tends to dig himself deeper and deeper into worse situations.
The awkwardness of these kinds of people and the result of their behaviour makes them more relatable and more lovable.
Everyday Life is Funny
Brits appreciate the funny side of everyday life. They are able to turn normal situations into a joke. Stand up comedians like Jimmy Carr are experts at this kind of humour. They take everyday activities and make them funny with word play or irony.
There are also several British tv series, like ‘Outnumbered’, where not much happens except for ordinary day-to-day life. The humour may not be obvious or laugh out loud, but brings a smile, because you can relate to it.
You connect with what is happening. The characters are like people who you see every day in real life, doing funny, stupid or embarrassing things.
Part of the power of this humour lies in how a comedian or character says the line. It is often said in deadpan style, with a lack of emotion. This contrasts with the craziness of what has just been said. It may be blunt, ironic or seem completely unplanned, which just makes it all the more funny.
Brits like the dark side of humour. They are very aware of the failure and disappointment hidden around every corner. So making it funny helps to deal with it, to lighten even the most sad or miserable moments.
Slapstick, which involves clumsy physical comedy, also comes into play in dark British humour. It plays down on the seriousness of a situation to make it silly and outrageous.
You will find British speech is full of understatements, used to describe something that is actually much worse in reality.
For example, someone might note that it is a bit windy outside when there is actually a raging hurricane. Or that they are in ‘a bit of a pickle’ when really they mean they are in a disastrous situation.
A good example of this on screen is in the Black Knight scene in the film ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’. The knight has had his arms cut off but says it is, “just a flesh wound.”
It is a bit like sarcasm but is spoken like normal conversation.
This involves using sharp humour against people or systems of power, such as politicians or the royal family. It is popular because Brits love taking self-important people and putting them down to make them more humble.
It is at the heart of some of the most enjoyable and hilarious British jokes.
Examples of this include tv shows like ‘Spitting Image’ and ‘Have I Got News for You’.
Time and a Place
So as you can see, humour is everywhere in Britain. It is okay to use in most situations, as long as it is in good taste. There really is no wrong time or place for humour in Britain. Any time is the right time.
Understanding British humour is part of understanding the language itself. Watch and listen for the different kinds of humour. And after a bit of time, you will soon get used to the unique British wit and enjoy a good laugh with friends.
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