The purported British Government notice below, which appeared on the internet recently, graphically illustrates the British sense of humour, which is an enigma to most other cultures.

      In some cultures, like the United States, the British sense of humour is admired, but not really understood. In most cultures it’s simply not understood. In some, it’s regarded as offensive, because it tends to be critical in the eyes of those who have not grown up with it. It is usually self-effacing, which is incomprehensible to cultures where “macho” is a major part of life. Equally, in cultures where any sort of direct confrontation is avoided at all costs, the pointed targeting that characterizes British humour is not only weird, but unacceptable. Overall, British humour does not travel well.

      However, it behooves me to try and explain the British sense of humour, if only to prevent someone from another culture shooting me for what they perceive as an insult. The best way of doing that, I think, is by example, and the following notice, which is not an official document as far as I know, is a good example. It’s almost believable, and therein lies the subtlety that characterizes much of British humour: You are never quite sure whether the perpetrator is serious or not.

      The very idea of the British government rounding up old-age pensioners to deport them creates an image in the mind of most English people that is hysterical (Government officials running around with large butterfly nets comes to mind).

      I’m sure human rights groups, particularly in the U.S. would be absolutely horrified by anyone even thinking about such a policy, even in jest, and would probably dispatch their lawyers to sue the British Government for human rights violations, without any concept that it might be a joke. However, it fits perfectly with a British sense of humour.

      Now, I have to say that not all British people have that peculiar sense of humour. I can think of members of my own family who just don’t have that capability, despite wanting to embrace it. Equally, many Americans do have that sense of humour although, overall, American humor tends to be German rather than British.

      Over the years, working in Hispanic cultures, as well as in the U.S., my sense of humour has got me into trouble many times. I have learned, but often forgotten, to be careful who I use it on and under what circumstances. Sometimes my comments just go straight over the head of the recipient but, sometimes, they really have caused offence, and I have to quickly qualify, or “correct” what I just said, particularly when my comments are of the more caustic variety.

      I can only say, in conclusion, that the British sense of humour is not intended to cause offense, at least most of the time, and I ask some indulgence for those of us for whom it is second nature.

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