Irony's subtle differences

Jordi   Tuesday, August 24, 2004, 19:38 GMT
I wrote a paper about irony for a University Journal a few years ago comparing English, French, Catalan and Spanish. I only compared the Great Britain and Commonwealth part I know best since I don't know as much about the US. It is true that Americans tend to have a different sense of humour than the UK. It's propably due to the fact that they are two countries divided by the same language and with different melting pots. I can assure you all civilised countries dispute their right to the ownership of the finest sense of irony. Sarcasm would be, as you know, the lowest form of irony and I too am astonished at people's lack of irony and the great differences one seems to find between different regions of the world, even within the same country. Who doesn't want to feel the wittiest in the world? Irony is all about processing messages that need to be deciphered. Take my word when I tell you that the Catalan sense of irony is very much misunderstood by Central Castilian Spaniards. Castilian Spaniards, like many of the American US, seem to have a much more straighforward sense of irony. There is a saying in Spanish, which says it all about how Castilians are: "Al pan, pan y al vino, vino" "To call bread, bread, and wine, wine." It urges you, of course, to call things by their name. I'd say the British, French and Catalan are more of a twisted lot, as far as this is concerned, since bread is much more a floury mixture and wine a drunken grape juice. Perhaps posters from other countries can also add to this. I'm thinking of all those Slavs, Hispanics and the Americans, of course. LOL
Xatufan   Wednesday, August 25, 2004, 00:57 GMT
French people have the worst humor... I cannot laugh when I hear their terrible jokes... I wanna cry...
CalifJim   Wednesday, August 25, 2004, 06:33 GMT
I agree. It takes a considerable amount of intelligence to understand a French joke.
Jim   Wednesday, August 25, 2004, 07:39 GMT
I think that in general the British sense of humour is different to the American one. Being Australian I can relate better to the former than the latter. I find British comedy (TV shows and movies) more funny than American comedy.
Mi5 Mick   Wednesday, August 25, 2004, 08:00 GMT

The problem is we don't get many British shows or films and the ones we get aren't very good (at least according to popularity); the vast majority are American. As for comedy, I think British humour is a bit sarcastic and dare I say: dry and cold, whereas American humour is more dressed up, so more processed.
Damian   Wednesday, August 25, 2004, 10:48 GMT

You are brilliant! I enjoyed your post...I will respond in detail later, I hope as this is literally a flying visit to the forum.....I need to earn an honest penny (or two). I like the topic of irony and humour. I believe it does vary from country to country and culture to culture.

Mick is right up to a point....that is the danger with regard to others' perceptions of British may seem to be utterly sarcastic but you are meant to see behind the sarcasm...that is where subtelty comes into the picture. Dry humour, as Mick says...not too sure about the "cold" bit though.

Regarding the USA....a good example. Anne Robinson, the hostess of the quiz program The Weakest Link, is an "extremely rude and obnoxious termagant" ON THE FACE OF IT. The program was taken off the air in America because apparently the Americans could no longer "tolerate" her no-holds-barred barbed comments which they took at face value. They took it all as too personal. The British mentality sees it's all meant in jest and nobody objects to the red headed shrew's vitriol. What do you think that slight wink means right at the end of each program? :-)
nic   Wednesday, August 25, 2004, 11:48 GMT
What kind of humor are you talking about? I mean some things for example in France makes me laugh, some others are really borring or vulgar. I guess it must ne the same in all the countries.

I like british humorism, there is something very good in GB, it's called something like "Shewing the fat", i am sorry if i made any mystake whith the correct spelling, maybe Damian knows it?

In France, germans have the reputation to not having any sense of humor, i think they have but must be very different from us.

What about channels and american sitcoms? I think there must have been an influence to Europe.
Mi5 Mick   Wednesday, August 25, 2004, 11:52 GMT

I had vaguely heard of her when you mentioned her, but it reminds of this English judge, Ian Dickson on Australian Idol and the rude English one on American Idol. The one on Australian Idol got quite the reputation, earning him the nickname "Dicko the dickhead" because a lot of people were offended by his vitriol, the knocked back girls to the point of tears but they'd finally come around, realising it's just a show. I found it all amusing, especially my favourite bit -- making a mockery of the horrendous singers! :)
Easterner   Wednesday, August 25, 2004, 16:29 GMT
I very much like the way British people use irony to laugh at themselves. On the other hand, Americans seem to take themselves too seriously most of the time. In Eastern Europe, I think the Czechs are the best at self-irony, and sometimes Hungarians as well (at least in their better moments, though we too can take ourselves too seriously). British humour is quite well appreciated here (at least with my generation, the younger ones seem to be more Americanized :-( ).

About The Weakest Link: there used to be a Hungarian version of it, and as I see it was much the same as the British one. I guess you had to accept when applying that you will be made to look like a fool during the quiz, so nobody should object to it as long as there are people who are willing enough to do that to win money.
Jordi   Wednesday, August 25, 2004, 16:44 GMT
I will reproduce a fine example of British irony that would be perfectly understood by most people in Great Britain. I think it was Damian who said, somewhere else, that an American student at his university actually thought he was being serious when he said something like "a fery fine day indeed" (it probably was raining cats and dogs.) She probably thought he'd gone mad.
I can assure you most Castilian Spaniards I know would think the British were simply bragging (or stating facts, reminding them, and the rest of the world, how bad the Spanish public transport can sometimes be) and many of the Catalans I know would understand it's just too good to be true and, therefore, not true at all. Please read the following jewel and comment:
"Great Britain, while famous for many things, is perhaps best known for the efficiency and promptness with which it runs its rail systems.
Each day millions of citizens are transported in comfort and style from the doorsteps of their homes, to offices, schools, shopping centres, and any number of other destinations.
It’s travel nirvana."

Damian   Wednesday, August 25, 2004, 17:15 GMT

LOL indeed....referring to the British rail system in those terms is taking irony to it's absolute limits! As the holder of a student railcard (which allows me 33% off normal fares) and forced to travel by trains here in the UK I can testify to that. Britain must surely be the only country in the entire world where the efficiency of it's trains can be affected by the "wrong kind of snow" and in the autumn by leaves on the lines. Even in the UK trees have the habit of shedding leaves in the autumn and they dare to land on railway lines. When trains run to time we celebrate in style :-) That is wry humour....

Easterner: yep.....Brits do laugh at themselves...self mockery must be some form of therapy, I'm not too sure. And yes, my limited experience of Americans made me realise they do tend to take themselves too seriously! If we can devise some form of Mid Atlantic humour then we can all laugh at (and with) each other.

Mick: you refer to Simon Cowell......the male version of Anne Robinson....a caustic tongue but not too be taken to heart. Well, unless you're a wannabe star :-)
Julian   Thursday, August 26, 2004, 03:16 GMT
This is all very interesting. I was at a co-worker's party over the weekend and and his British roommate was there making all sorts of caustic wisecracks with a very serious, straight face. It was plainly obvious to me that he was being tongue-in-cheek and a lot of the other guys at the party were rolling along with the punches. But the women! They were all complaining about him being "rude" and kept throwing him these puzzled looks as if wondering why this man was being so "mean". At one point an African-American lady got in his face and took him to task for being so rude. The guy was absolutely stunned, then he made some comment about Americans being so humorless.

It left me wondering whether ironic humor (or the ability to understand it) was not only a cultural thing but also a gender thing. From my experience (and please don't take offense female readers, it's just an observation) it's usually the women who take the seemingly harmless comments too seriously.
Mi5 Mick   Thursday, August 26, 2004, 06:48 GMT
The problem with maintaining a straight face is that sometimes you really don't know if a person is serious or what they're thinking, especially when caustic or scathing. This is the kind of misunderstanding that leads to fights in pubs anywhere in the world, even in Britain. I mean, how do know you if someone is being serious, sarcastic or playful without some expression on their face? Even then, a smirk could be received as a sarcastic pique.

Yeah that's the guy: Simon Cowell. Well the one here, Dicko, goes so far as call people "too ugly to be a performer". I thought it was funny at first when he said that to a girl, until she cried and my girlfriend didn't appreciate the humour in it. So maybe they go too far LOL! Well "too ugly" didn't stop an ugly Guy (his name) winning the competition.

Anne Robinson: TV's rudest woman?
Jordi   Thursday, August 26, 2004, 07:08 GMT
There is a very fine line indeed between irony and rudeness. In the Western World it is becoming extremely difficult not to be "politically correct". Perhaps the young ladies felt hurt because of sexist jokes. That's quite common amongst men. Older men usually only tell sexist jokes when the ladies aren't around. They've probably learnt the lesson. Jokes that made our parents --including our mothers-- laugh would simply not be allowed by young ladies now. If you want to be funny you can have a face as straight as you want but, somehow, you must put people in the right situation and have them realise that you are trying to be funny. You shouldn't tell them you're going to be funny (never) but it should be made obvious in some subtle way. That's why it's so difficult to be ironic and witty because it depends as much on the transmitter as the receiver. If that bond is not there it just won't work. If something goes wrong after the first couple of sentences just shut up. Of course, if very much depends on intelligence --how else can you understand anything specially irony and humour-- but you might not be in the mood for a session, or a simple wisecrack, if you're having a bad lot that day. It depends, also, on context. One just does not laugh and render widow's jokes at his friend's husband wake. Well, it all depends on how relieved the widow is by fate, of course.
Damian   Thursday, August 26, 2004, 07:20 GMT
Keeping a straight face is part of the whole thing,'s called deadpan humour. You are testing the comprehension and mental agility of your audience.

Mick: a pub is a pretty dodgy place to test all this out! LOL

Julian: I would love to have been at your party. I think you are right about there being a "gender divide" as I discovered. Of course, it probably depends to a certain extent to the nature of the Brit's wisecracks!). There is definitely a gap between UK and US humour as I have said, and while at uni I had first hand experience. It's funny, but what you said was borne out...the American guys were more responsive than the girls. They gave me the impression they were offended and the joking Brit guys had stepped outside the boundaries of PC or something.......much as you illustrated. My response to that African-American lady would have been: "Get a life!"