WATCHING THE ENGLISH HUMOUR RULESfriend. Thats it! How do you do that? How do you know to do that? thigh-slapping funniness: thé humour of English self-deprecation, likeHow do you know wben to do it? I dont know, said my father apolo- that of thé English understatement, is understated, often to thé pointgetically. I-cant explain. We just do it. It just cornes naturally. of being almost imperceptible - and bordering on incompréhensible to This is thé other problem with thé English understatement: it is a those unfamiliar with English modesty rules.rule, but a rule in thé fourth OED sensé of thé normal or usual state To show how it works, however, I will take a relatively blatantof things — we are not conscious of obeying it; it is somehow wired example. My fiancé is a brain surgeon. When we first met, I asked whatinto our brains. We are not taught thé use of thé understatement, we had led him to choose this profession. Well, um, he replied, I readlearn it by osmosis. The understatement cornes naturally because it is PPE [Philosophy, Politics and Economies] at Oxford, but I found it aildeeply ingrained in our culture, part of thé English psyché. rather beyond me, so, er, I thought ld better do something a bit less The understatement is also difficult for foreigners to get because it difficult. I laughed, but then, as he must hâve expected, protested thatis, in effect, an in-joke about our own unwritten rules of humour. When surely brain surgery could not really be described as an easy option.we describe, say, a horrendous, traumatic and painful expérience as not This gave him a further opportunity for self-deprecation. Oh no, itsvery pleasant, we are acknowledging thé taboo on earnestness and thé nowhere near as élever as its cracked up to be; to be honest its actu-rules of irony, but at thé same making fun of our ludicrously rigid ally a bit hit-or-miss. Its just plumbing, really, plumbing with a micro-obédience to thèse codes. We areexercising restraint, but in such an scope - except plumbings rather more accurate. It later emerged, asexaggerated manner that we are also (quietly) laughing at ourselves for he must hâve known it would, that far from finding thé intellectualdoing so. We are parodying ourselves. Every understatement is a little demands of Oxford beyond him, he had entered with a scholarshipprivate joke about Englishness. and graduated with a First. I was a dreadful little swot, he explained. So was he being truly modest? No, but nor could his humorouslyThe Self-deprecation Rule self-deprecating responses really be described as deliberate, calculatedLike thé English understatement, English self-deprecation can be seen false modesty. He was simply playing by thé rules, dealing with théas a form of irony. It usually involves not genuine modesty but saying embarrassment of success and prestige by making a self-denigratingthé opposite of what we really mean — or at least thé opposite of what joke out of it ail, as is our custom. And this is thé point, there waswe in tend people to understand. nothing extraordinary or remarkable about his humble self-mockery: The issue of English modesty will corne up again and again in this he was just being English. We ail do this, automatically, ail thé time.book, so I should clear up any misunderstandings about it straight away. Even those of us with much less impressive achievements or credentialsWhen I speak of modesty rules, I mean exactly that - not that thé to disguise. lm lucky - many people dont know what an anthropolo-English are somehow naturally more modest and self-effacing than other gist is, and those who do generally regard us as thé lowest form ofnations, but that we hâve strict rules about thé appearance of modesty. scientific life, so there is very little danger of being thought boastfulThèse include both négative rules, such as prohibitions on boasting when I am asked about my work. But just in case I might be suspectedand any form of self-importance, and positive rules, actively of being (or claiming to be) something vaguely brainy, I always quicklyprescribing self-deprecation and self-mockery. The very abundance of explain to those unfamiliar with thé term that it is just a fancy wordthèse unwritten rules suggests that thé English are not naturally or for nosey parker, and to académies that what I do is in any case onlyinstinctively modest: thé best that can be said is that we place a high pop-anthropology, not thé proper, intrepid, mud-hut variety.value on modesty, that we aspire to modesty. The modesty that we actu- Among ourselves, this System works perfectly well: everyone under-ally display is generally false — or, to put it more charitably, ironie. stands that thé customary self-deprecation probably means roughly And therein lies thé humour. Again, we are not talking about obvious, thé opposite of what is said, and is duly impressed, both by ones 68
WATCHING THE ENGLISH HUMOUR RULESachievements and by ones reluctance to trumpet them. (Even in my case, other nations, thé fact that we hâve no concept of a separate time andwhen it barely counts as self-deprecation, being ail too sadly true, people place for humour, that humour suffuses thé English consciousness, doesoften wrongly assume that what I do must surely be somewhat less daft mean that English comic writers, artists and performers hâve to workthan it sounds.) The problems arise when we English attempt to play this quite hard to make us laugh. They hâve to produce something abovegame with people from outside our own culture, who do not understand and beyond thé humour that permeates every aspect of our ordinarythé rules, fail to appreciate thé irony, and therefore hâve an unfortunate social interactions. Just because thé English hâve a good sensé oftendency to take our self-deprecating statements at face value. We make humour does not mean that we are easily amused - quite thé oppo-our customary modest noises, thé uninitiated foreigners accept our appar- site: our keen, finely tuned sensé of humour, and our irony-saturatedently low estimate of our achievements, and are duly unimpressed. We culture probably make us harder to amuse than most other nations.cannot very well then turn round and say: No, hey, wait a minute, youre Whether or not this results in better comedy is another matter, but mysupposed to give me a sort of knowingly sceptical smile, showing that impression is that it certainly seems to resuit in an awful lot of comedyyou realize lm being humorously self-deprecating, dont believe a word - good, bad or indiffèrent; if thé English are not amused, it is clearlyof it and think even more highly of my abilities and my modesty. They not for want of effort on thé part of our prolific humorists.dont know that this is thé prescribed English response to prescribed I say this with genuine sympathy, as to be honest thé kind of anthro-English self-deprecation. They dont know that we are playing a convo- pology I do is not far removed from stand-up comedy — at least, théluted bluffing game. They inadvertently call our bluff, and thé whole thing sort of stand-up routines that involve a lot of jokes beginning Hâvebackfires on us. And frankly, it serves us right for being so silly. 1 you ever noticed how people always . . . ? The best stand-up comics invariably follow this with some pithy, acute, élever observation on thé HUMOUR AND COMEDY minutiae of human behaviour and social relations. Social scientists like me try hard to do thé same, but there is a différence: thé stand-upBecause thé two are often conflated and confused, it is worth pointing comics hâve to get it right. If their observation does not ring true orout that I am talking hère specifically about thé rules of English humour, strike a chord, they dont get a laugh, and if this happens too often,rather than English comedy. That is, I am concerned with our use of they dont make a living. Social scientists can talk utter rubbish forhumour in everyday life, everyday conversation, rather than with thé years and still pay their mortgages. At its best, however, social sciencecomic novel, play, film, poem, sketch, cartoon or stand-up routine. Thèse can sometimes be almost as insightful as good stand-up comedy.would require another whole book to analyse - and a book written bysomeone much better qualified than I am. Having said that, and without pretending to any expert knowledge H U M O U R A N D CLASSof thé subject, it seems clear to me that English comedy is influenced Although elsewhere in this book I scrupulously identify class différencesand informed by thé nature of everyday English humour as I hâve and variations in thé application and observance of certain rules, youdescribed it hère, and by some of thé other rules of Englishness iden- may hâve noticed that there has been no mention of class in this chapter.tified in other chapters, such as thé embarrassment rule (most English This is because thé guiding principles of English humour are class-comedy is essentially about embarrassment). English comedy, as one less. The taboo on earnestness, and thé rules of irony, understatementmight expect, obeys thé rules of English humour, and also plays an and self-deprecation transcend ail class barriers. No social rule is everimportant social rôle in transmitting and reinforcing them. Almost ail universally obeyed, but among thé English thèse humour rules areof thé best English comedy seems to involve laughing at ourselves. universally (albeit subconsciously) understood and accepted. Whatever While I would not claim that English comedy is superior to that of thé class context, breaches are noticed, frowned upon and ridiculed. 70
1 Multiple Choice :Circle thé correct answer1. Self-deprecation is :A saying thé opposite of what we genuinely wantB expressing thé opposite of what we really meanC intending to say thé opposite of what we understand2. The English...A are naturally modest and prefer self-mockery to self-importanceB hâve few strict rules about thé appearance of modestyC aspire to modesty even though they are not instinctively modest3. The humour in English self-deprecation is...A funny in a thigh-slapping wayB barely perceptibleC bordering on thé unfamiliar4. The authors fiancé...A read books on Philosophy, Politics and Economies before becoming a brain surgeonB thought hed do better in a brain insurgencyC Studied Philosophy, Politics and Economies at Oxford at some point5. The authors fiancés comment on plumbing was :A Simply his way of abiding to thé unwritten English ruleB Deliberate and calculated false modestyC A self-denigrating joke dealing with success and embarrassment6. People are generally impressed...A both by other peoples achievements and their not trumpeting themB by other peoples achievements unless they trumpet them too muchC by other peoples achievement and their reluctance to play thé trumpetFind thé words or expressions matching thé following définitions : - to puff oneself up in speech : speak vaingloriously / to speak of or assert with excessive pride - busybody: a person who meddles in thé affairs of others - to accept someone or something just as it appears; to believe that thé way things appear is thé way they really are.