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The British sense of humour

British Humour
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Any international healthcare professional coming to work in the UK will need to get to grip with the unique British sense of humour. In this post, Stephanie Lam gives you a brief guide on what to look out for.

Have you ever noted to yourself the strangeness of the British sense of humour? The complicated nature of what makes a Brit laugh is one that’s flummoxed many a non-native speaker. This is a land, after all, where a sunny morning leads people to suppose it will rain by the afternoon. Anticipating what will tickle the British funny bone can be dangerous territory for someone who hasn’t grown up here. It’s always hard to make jokes in a culture you’re not used to, and it’s easy to cause offence.

The British sense of humour works on many levels of irony. It hinges on the presumption that whatever’s said nearly always refers to something else (and often two or three things) at the same time. That ‘something else’ is often class, hypocrisy, or taboos. Humour also often involves wordplay, or a delight in the rhythm of certain phrases strung together.

None of these are easy for the non-native speaker. And yet there’s another aspect to British humour which is often overlooked, and it’s this: that life is essentially absurd, so we may as well laugh at it.

Laughing at things going wrong, or people taking themselves too seriously, is a staple of British comedy, and one that it’s easier to get on board with than wordy jokes that contain a dozen subtexts. And you may be aware of Mr Bean and Monty Python, but pretty much all successful UK comedies utilise the essential silliness of existence for laughs.

Mr Bean
Monty Python's Flying Circus

Laughing at absurdity is an integral part of the British way of life. In fact, it’s sometimes the only solution, as you’ll know if you’ve ever attended a June wedding only to end up knee deep in torrential rain. It’s better to laugh than cry, we often say, so let’s do that, instead. And surely that’s a type of humour that lets everyone join in.

Stephanie Lam
About the author

Stephanie Lam is a writer, journalist, and English teacher. She specialises in writing fabulous words for the wellbeing and health industries.

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