How to tell if someone is joking

Two young people laughing together

Humour is a big part of British daily life. Although we don’t make jokes all the time, it is true that most conversations have some humour, even if we are talking about bad things that have happened. In fact, especially if we are talking about bad things that have happened. This is because we prefer not to become too emotional about anything. A joke helps to keep things ‘light-hearted’.

One way we use humour to stop our emotions becoming too intense is by using understatement. This means we say something is less bad or good than the reality. If we are very happy, angry or sad we will often use language that makes these feelings seem less strong.

It might seem strange to say you are less happy than you really are, but this is partly because is it is rare for people to boast openly (outside social media) about their success – they would be considered ‘up themselves’ and would not get many friends. This doesn’t mean we don’t boast, we just do it in a less obvious way. Making fun of ourselves is often an example of this: “And then I spilt ketchup all over my new Louis Vuitton trousers!”

At other times we may exaggerate reality or use sarcasm. This is usually to improve a boring situation or to gently tease someone, for example if they arrive wearing a new brightly coloured coat that we think is awful: “Wow, that’s a really nice jacket.” If we can be ‘witty’ (funny and clever), that is even better – British people really admire those who are good at this type of humour.

However, our jokes don’t generally mean we are cheerful and smiling the whole time. They often just let us have a brief laugh at the way life is never easy and help us explore uncomfortable topics. Sometimes we even use ‘dark humour’, which means jokes about death or other very serious subjects. Generally, only close friends or family hear about true feelings – and even then it is probably only on rare occasions.

It can be difficult to know when British people are joking, especially because it might be done with an emotionless ‘deadpan’ face. So perhaps the easiest way to understand British humour is to see some examples, with an explanation of why they are jokes. If you still struggle to realise someone is joking, it is worth knowing that British people don’t always get it right either. If you are ever unsure, it’s fine to say: “Do you really mean it?”

  • “I’m really sorry to hear about your illness.”
    “Yeah, but at least I won’t have to do any cooking while I’m in hospital!”
    Of course, people who have a serious illness will be upset about it. But talking about how sad we are will not change the situation. Instead, we make jokes to help everyone feel better at a bad time.
  • “Congratulations on your daughter’s award at school!”
    “Thanks, though unfortunately it hasn’t stopped her leaving her wet towels around the house.”
    These parents are unlikely to admit how proud they are because it would seem like boasting. Instead, the pride is assumed and people would mention something negative to show that their child is not perfect, even if they are very talented.
  • “How was the food at the new restaurant?
    “Yeah, not bad.”
    This is a classic example of British understatement. “Not bad” is a popular way to say that you have really enjoyed something (without ‘boasting’ about having an amazing experience). If it  was genuinely only a bit good, we would probably say something like “Yeah, it was alright, but…”
  • “What are you doing this weekend?”
    “Oh you know, hitting the town, catching up with my buddy Brad Pitt and generally being fabulous.”
    British people would be unlikely to boast like this if they truly were friends with Brad Pitt. This is where exaggeration is used as a joke about the boring reality of their weekend. (If they really were meeting someone famous, they would act a bit embarrassed about it, but would want you to ask them lots of questions so they could tell you everything, thus boasting in a more subtle way).
  • “Wow, that new lecturer was boring, wasn’t he?”
    “At least I know where to go if I only have another hour to live. It would take so long I’d probably be pleased to die at the end of it.”
    A straightforward answer doesn’t allow for any laughter. But exaggerating makes the conversation funny and improves a bad situation.
  • “Are you taking the kids to football practice later?”
    “Yep, can’t wait for another thrilling morning down at the sports field.”
    Standing in the rain watching your children play sport is rarely fun. The sarcasm makes the conversation friendlier and less formal.

Image: Jagtar Singh/Unsplash

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