contrast british and american


“Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.”—Auden

There is a distinct British sense of humor, often wry, dry and irreverent. It doesn’t rely on smut to be effective, although we’re amused by suggestion. We like the casual delivery, so leave your eyebrows out of it. Half the fun is subtlety. Brits like me enjoy the unexpected outcome, the double entendre, observations on human nature and misunderstandings; slapstick not so much. Some folk need one to signal a joke, but I would rather it went over their head than spoil my fun.

Brits turn to humor in adversity. Throughout the War (I was a small child in London during WWII) there was a prevailing cheerful tone between neighbors and strangers, despite the bombs and hardships. Joking about Hitler cut him down to size.

I’ve noticed that adversity brings out that buoyant spirit in me too. My natural reaction to facing surgery or complex problems of any kind is a wild desire to make light of it. Perhaps it’s an attempt to diffuse tension. I joked while being wheeled (terrified) into the theater to deliver breach twins. And I could see the funny side of waking up from brain surgery. But that may have been a reaction to the drugs. In the past, having teeth pulled with laughing gas must have had a similar effect.

Vocabulary is important. Perhaps the genuine disconnect between British and American humor is partly related to vocabulary and its associations. We have different cultural references so remarks can go over one’s head. There’s a generation gap too: language changes over time. Children today have a different understanding from their grandparents of words like copy, memory, application, program, keyboard, web, virus, hard drive, floppy and mouse.

I sometimes watch stand-up comedy on TV and am put off by an audience guffawing at crudity. Vulgarity is funny only in the context of a humorous situation; it shouldn’t be the essence of the joke. For example:

A man shaking the preacher’s hand after the service said “Preacher, that was a damn fine sermon!” The preacher said “Thank you sir, but I’d rather you didn’t use profanity.” The man continued, “I was so damned impressed with that sermon, I put five thousand dollars in the offering plate,” and the preacher said, “No s**t?”

I like jokes about human relationships, but preferably a notch above mother-in-law humor, which is invariably pejorative. I wonder if those comedians are still invited for Thanksgiving. Sometimes we can forgive a tasteless joke if it is funny enough.

A man opens the door to a policeman and asks, “What’s the matter?” The policeman asks if he has a picture of his wife. When the man returns with it the policeman looks very serious. “Sir,” he says, “It looks as though your wife has been run over by a truck.” Smiling, the man says, “That’s true, but she has a fantastic personality and is a great cook.”

Others are apocryphal.

A counselor remarked to a patient, “You’re looking up-beat today.” Patient to Counselor: “I am. After both suffering depression for a while my husband and I were going to commit suicide yesterday. Strangely enough, once he killed himself I started to feel a lot better, so I thought blow it, I’ll soldier on.”

As an interpreter I’m aware that jokes can be lost in translation. I gather that Pepsi’s “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” translated into Chinese, “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.” Perdue’s chicken slogan, “It takes a strong man to make a tender chicken” translated into Spanish, “It takes an aroused man to make a chicken affectionate.”

Comedians are not the only funny ones. Some jokes are unintentional. Many funny stories are true.

The Queen of England visited a home for the bewildered and speaking to one woman who looked a tad dozy, asked “Do you know who I am?” “No, m’dear,” said the woman, “but if you ask at Reception, they’ll tell you.”

I chuckle at the unexpected. My granddaughter was four when she complimented me after a visit to the salon, “Your hair looks nice, Granny,” to which I replied “Why thank you, Leah,” and she added, “Yes, because before it was horrible.”

Her brother Charlie was also four when he told me about his best friend: “You’ll like Dylan, Granny. He’s cute. He hasn’t got a dog.” Neither had Charlie; I wondered why he mentioned it. “He had a dog,” he said darkly, “It was gross. It was old and smelly and it kept licking everyone… it’s in heaven now. In fact it’s probably licking God right now.”

When my son Patrick was 10 his teachers suggested I take him to a speech therapist. They had noticed he had difficulty rolling his R’s. The therapist asked him to read aloud, and expressed her concern, but I was not worried. I said “It hasn’t done Roy Jenkins” (a prominent British politician) “any harm, and my husband also has this tendency. Our five sons are mostly tongue-tied, but only the oldest had his tongue cut.” “Oh no, we don’t do that now,” she said, “as long as they can lick their top lip, it’s all right. We will only do something about it if it worries him.” “It doesn’t worry me, said Pat happily, “I mostly read in silence anyway.”

When he was seven my grandson Connor read the initials “JMU” in a flower border in Harrisonburg VA and asked what they meant. I told him that James Madison University is named after an important man who was president 150 years ago. Connor asked, “Is he still alive?” “No,” I said evenly, “he’s dead now.” Connor continued: “Mommy says that when you die they put you in a box and put it in the ground and then you go to Heaven.” “That’s right,” I said cheerfully to reassure him, “and then you have wings and you can fly.” “You’ll be flying soon, won’t you Granny?” said Connor.

I’d like to leave you with a Southern joke which I know Brits would appreciate.

In church one Sunday the preacher said, “Anyone with special needs who wants to be prayed over, please come forward to the altar.” With that, Leroy got in line and when it was his turn, the preacher asked, “Leroy, what do you want me to pray about for you?”

Leroy replied, “Preacher, I need you to pray for help with my hearing.” The preacher put one finger in Leroy’s ear and placed his other hand on top of Leroy’s head. The whole congregation joined in as he prayed for Leroy with enthusiasm.

After a few minutes, the preacher removed his hands, stood back and asked, “Leroy, how is your hearing now?” Leroy answered, “I don’t know yet. It ain’t till Thursday.”

Image: from "Blackadder Goes Forth" (fair use)
Eileen Dight

Eileen Dight

Eileen Dight is a retired British specialist on trading in Spain, now resident in Ireland. Spanish- and French- speaking, graduate (at 46) of International Politics and History; former editor, interpreter and fundraiser. Her five sons and twelve grandchildren live in four different Time zones around the world. She has lived in England, Wales, Spain, France and Virginia, North America for 11 years. In 2012 she self-published her memoir Plate Spinner and Only Joking, 200 pages of collected jokes categorized for easy reference, as well as What’s On My Mind, her first 50 essays published in Like The Dew. All available on