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Understanding British Humour

This article was originally posted by GB Mag. A weekly, digital magazine that helps international students learn more about the UK and settle in faster.

How do you know when a British person is joking? Or why they’re joking for that matter?

Time for a laugh

Ha ha ha … Time for a laugh girls and boys.      Photo: Marc Kjerland (Flickr). 

Confused by what Brits find funny?  And are you the last to get the joke?  Well admittedly British humour is hard to pin down although there are some characteristics such as sarcasm and self-deprecation that define British humour.

What people make jokes about and what our comedy shows cover is far reaching and almost no subject is taboo and that includes poking fun at the Royal Family and people in the public eye, including politicians.

Equally Brits find comedy in the everyday and people from one part of the UK love to poke fun at people from other regions, whether that is to do with how they speak, dress or what they eat.

One of the key things about British humour is that we love the deadpan delivery, which means it is sometimes hard to tell if a Brit is joking or being sincere.

British humour is as varied as British weather! So you will get caught out. But here is our guide to what to look out for and the cue to when it is OK to laugh.

1. Sarcasm and irony

We Brits like sarcasm and irony as much as we like dipping biscuits into tea (probably more so, in fact). Sarcasm is often used in the form of saying one thing but actually meaning the opposite. For example saying “I love your moves on the dance floor” to a friend who is a terrible dancer.

2. Understatement

An understatement is very British. It’s when someone deliberately makes out that something is less significant than it is. For instance, by saying “It’s a little bit windy, isn’t it?” when there’s a raging hurricane outside is an understatement. It’s probably due to the British tendency of wanting to play things down. “Deadpan humour” (making a joke without smiling) is one element of understatement.

3. Satire

Satire involves using biting humour to criticise people and institutions with power, like politicians. Satire is popular in the UK because Brits love taking people “down a peg or two” (humbling them when they get too arrogant). There are many comedy shows dedicated to exactly this including ‘Have I got news for you’ andCharlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe’.

4. The absurd

Absurd humour focuses on the silly, ridiculous or surreal. Much of British comedy is about noticing the absurd things in everyday life. Like the way everyone squishes onto the train even though there is another one in just one minute. Luckily, Brits tend to see the funny side of this (usually). This kind of comedy is best done by stand-up comedians, including Jimmy Carr and Peter Kay.

5. Banter

Banter is basically a jokey conversation between friends that involves good-natured teasing. Along with crisps and quizzes, it’s a big part of pub culture in the UK. So while you’re studying here, make a point of socialising with some locals – that way you can perfect your bantering skills.

6. Innuendo

The Brits aren’t shy of a joke that involves a sexual innuendo. Of course there are varying degrees if you take comedians like Julian Clary, show’s like ‘It’s Not the Nine O’clock News’ and films like the classic Carry On’ films you will see that there are certainly no taboo’s but generally people take their guide from the social situation and who they are with when making this kind of joke.

7 British Class system

As much as Brits are entrenched in the class system everyone loves poking fun at everyone else and over the year’s there have been some classics dedicated to every run of the social ladder, including Keeping up Appearances’ and ‘Jeeves and Wooster’.

8 Macabre

One of the main differences between British humour and the humour of other nationalities is that we enjoy the cringe worthy. This is perfectly demonstrated in the film Four Lions and the legendary TV series League of Gentleman.

9. Embarrassing and social ineptitude

Brits are sometimes perceived to be uptight or socially awkward saying and doing things at the wrong time. And this even makes us laugh!  The caricatures of British social ineptitude is personified in Mr Bean and The Office.

10. Laughing at everyday life

The UK has a number of hit sitcoms where nothing much happens apart from everyday life.  There are no knee slapping moments but a lot of cringe worthy moments when you cannot believe someone has done or said what they have.

These sitcoms are subtle to say the least but they are genius at the same time. The best include Gavin and Tracy, I’m Alan Partridge and The Royle Family.

So there you have it – a quick rundown of what tickles our national funny bone. But the best way to understand British humour is to sit down and watch some of our TV comedy. Go on – you deserve the break from studying!

If you liked this article head to GB Mag.