Humour is a phenomenon which is influenced by culture. It can be difficult to determine what aspects define a certain sense of humour. A nation’s wit is linked to the historical development of the country. How funny somebody finds a certain incident depends on many factors including age, personal experience, level of education and geographical location. Therefore humour is something which is not always transferrable in another country. What somebody from one area may find hilarious may not be amusing at all to somebody from another location. Whether or not someone gets a joke is determined by their interpretation, filtered by the cultural context.
What about when both countries speak the same mother tongue? Does that mean that they will then share the same sense of humour, or can differences still occur? Let’s take the example of Britain and America. Time and time again, people say that Brits and Americans don’t ‘get’ each other’s sense of humour. To what extent is this true, if at all?
It is often argued that one of the most common differences between the British and American sense of humour is that Americans don’t understand irony. Simon Pegg explores this topic in depth in his article What are you laughing at? He concludes that this statement isn’t true and I am inclined to agree with him.
One of the major differences seems to be how often both nations use irony. Brits use irony on a daily basis, whereas it is not the foundation of American humour. I think Americans understand British irony (most of the time anyway!), what they don’t understand is the need to use it so frequently. When Americans use irony they tend to state that they were “only kidding”. They feel the need to make a joke more obvious than Brits do, maybe this stems from a fear of offending people.
The American sense of humour is generally more slapstick than that in Britain. I think this arises from a cultural difference between the two. Their jokes are more obvious and forward, a bit like Americans themselves. British jokes, on the other hand, tend to be more subtle but with a dark or sarcastic undertone. There is usually a hidden meaning. This may stem from the fact that British culture is more reserved than American culture.
Certain American comedies have gained huge success in Britain and vice versa. Therefore, although there are differences between both comic styles, there is still an appreciation and understanding of the other sense of humour. Both the British and America versions of the comedy The Office are hugely successful on both sides of the Atlantic. Both shows have their own cultural differences, yet they portray a lifestyle which both Americans and Brits alike can relate to.
Although both nations have subtle differences in their wit, they can both appreciate the others’ sense of humour. For some great insight into differences between American and British English check out separated by a common language, which served as inspiration for this article.