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Sense of Humour

The English appear to be a deeply serious people, which, by and large, they are. This gives an added piquancy to the English sense of humour. For it comes as a surprise to foreigners to find that it exists at all.

English humour, like the will-o'-the-wisp, refuses to be caught and examined and just when you think you have cracked it, you realise that you have been duped once again. For example:

Two men in a club are reading their newspapers when one says: "It says here there's a fellow in Devon who plays his cello to the seals." "Oh really", says the other. "Yes", says the first, "Of course, they don't take a blind bit of notice."

Since the English never say what they mean, often the exact opposite, and tend towards reticence and understatement, their humour is partly based on an exaggeration of this facet of their own character. So, while in conversation they avoid confrontation, in their humour they mock that avoidance.

Tact and diplomacy are held up to ridicule in a way that would appear to give the lie to all that the English actually seem to hold dear. Thus in a popular television situation comedy, Yes, Minister, we are encouraged to laugh at the elaborate verbal subterfuge of die civil servant who can turn black into white and convince everyone that they were one and the same thing all the time. English humour is as much about recognition as it is about their ability to laugh at themselves, e.g:

During a television programme on sex the audience was asked "How many people here have sex more than three times a week?" There was a weak show of hands. "And how many have sex once a month?" A sea of hands shot up. "Anyone less than that?" One man waved his arm surprisingly enthusiastically. "Once a year," he said. The audience was stunned and the interviewer observed incredulously, "You don't look very upset about it." "No," said the man, "Tonight's the night!"

Cruelty, a mainstay of German humour, has no place in its English equivalent. Not for them the acid satire of the Berlin cabarets. They prefer a gentler corrective, cleverer and more subtle.

The wry smile that greets the well-judged understatement is a characteristic English expression. They love irony and expect others to appreciate it too. In this, they are all too often disappointed as foreigners take umbrage at what appears to them to be unbearable rudeness. This, of course, merely confirms what the English have always secretly suspected - that foreigners cannot take a joke.

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