Here’s my tip of the week. Don’t make jokes in
America. Even in experienced hands, a joke can be a
dangerous thing. I came to this conclusion recently
while passing through Customs and Immigration at
Logan airport in Boston. As I approached the last
immigration official, he said to me, ‘Any fruit or
I considered for a moment. ‘Sure, why not?’ I said. ‘I’ll have four
pounds of potatoes and some mangoes, if they’re fresh.’
Instantly, I could see that I had misjudged my audience. He looked
at me with one of those slow, dark expressions that you never want
to see in a uniformed official, but especially in a US Customs and
Luckily he appeared to conclude that I was just incredibly stupid.
‘Sir,’ he enquired more specifically, ‘are you carrying any items of fruit
‘No, sir, I am not,’ I answered at once, and gave him the most
respectful look I believe I have ever given anybody in my life. I left
him shaking his head. I am sure that for the rest of his career he will
always be telling people about the idiot who thought he was a
The same thing happened another time when I was talking to my
neighbour about a disastrous airline trip which had left me stranded
overnight in Denver. ‘Who did you fly with?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know,’ I replied. ‘They were all strangers.’ He looked at me
with an expression of panic.
‘No, I meant which airline did you fly with,’ he said. Soon after this
my wife ordered me to stop making jokes with him, as our
conversations were giving him a migraine.
‘Irony’ of course is the key word here. Americans don’t use it very
much. (I’m being ironic; they don’t use it at all.) The English writer
Howard Jacobson says that Americans don’t have a sense of humour.
Actually he is wrong. Many of the funniest people who ever lived
were or are Americans, such as the Marx brothers or Woody Allen.
But it is certainly true that wit and sense of humour are not valued as
much in America as they are in Britain. The comedian John Cleese
once said: ‘An Englishman would rather be told that he was a bad
lover than that he had no sense of humour.’
It isn’t that there are no people with an active sense of humour in
America, it’s just that there are fewer of them. When you meet one
it’s like I imagine it must be when two Masons recognize each other
across a crowded room. The last time I experienced this was a few
weeks ago when I arrived at our local airport and approached a cab
for a ride home. ‘Are you free?’ I innocently asked the driver.
He looked at me with an expression I recognized at once – the
look of someone who can see the chance of a joke. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I
charge like everyone else.’ I could almost have hugged him.
Adapted from Notes From A Big Country, Bill Bryson