British humour: What exactly i

British humour: What exactly is it and how does it work?

When it comes to British humour, the rule of thumb is: If someone is saying something which makes absolutely no sense with a straight face, they’re probably joking.

British humour: What exactly i

Non-stop British humour

Many Brits believe that the British sense of humour is unique, more subtle and more highly developed than other nations.

Popular British playwright Oscar Wilde made this point quite clearly and deliberately when he said, “It is clear that humour is far superior to humor”.

Perhaps the most confusing part of British humour however, is that there is no ‘off’ switch. Almost every conversation between Brits is bound to feature some form of irony, sarcasm, banter, understatement, self-deprecation, teasing or mockery.

When every word exchanged between Brits has an undercurrent of humour, it becomes difficult to decipher when a Brit is joking or being serious.

This is even more problematic considering the delivery of jokes is almost always done with a deadpan face.

The rule of thumb is therefore, if someone is saying something which makes absolutely no sense with a straight face, they’re probably joking.

The British are the masters of the deadpan face
Flickr / Jaume Escofet

Core of British humour: irony and sarcasm

The British have a unique partiality for irony and are always ready to whip out a sarcastic quip when the opportunity presents itself.

An extremely dry example of this would be for a British person to comment on how delightful the weather is when it is pouring outside.

The British make use of irony and it’s derivative, sarcasm, to say the opposite of what they mean in order to make a point.

This typically occurs when a Brit is confronted with a silly question, such as when British actress Cara Delevigne was asked on US television if she had read John Green’s book, Paper Towns, before starring in the movie.

Delevigne scoffed and replied, “No, I never read the book or the script, I just winged it”.



For the rest of the world, there is a time and a place for irony. For the Brits, that time and place is wherever and whenever.

It is this constant use of irony in conversation which can make the British come across as tiresome and rude to outsiders.

British fondness for understatement

In refusing to be overwhelmed by anything, the British resort to rather emotionless statements, such as “Not bad” when they really mean, “That’s actually quite good”.

British speech is littered with understatement. The Debretts guide to British social skills, etiquette and style notes that British conversations are filled with moderating expressions, such as ‘quite’, ‘rather’, ‘a bit’, ‘actually’.

A ‘spot of bother’ or ‘a bit of a pickle’ may understate that things are disastrous, in the same way that “Let’s go out for a pint” usually means going out for many, many more drinks.

A classic example of British understatement can be seen in the ‘Black Knight’ scene from Monty Python, where upon having his arm chopped off the Black Knight proclaims, “Tis but a scratch”:


The British do not parade their achievements and are deeply hostile to pomposity.

Instead of boasting and blowing their own trumpets, the Brits tend to make light of their shortcomings by being excessively modest and putting themselves down.

Obvious sources of self-deprecating humour include one’s accent, age, physical build, baldness, prominent features, geekiness or strange name.

British comedian and self-proclaimed ‘language nerd’, David Mitchell, is a well-known self-deprecator.

In an episode of Would I Lie to You? Mitchell mocks himself by calling his beard a “failure in personal hygiene”.

Watch David Mitchell defend his ‘noteworthy appearance’


In dealing with the embarrassment of success through such self-mockery, the Brits believe they appear more humble and relatable.

Fellow Brits are able to read beneath the self-deprecation and admire them for their modesty.

It is particularly important for the Brits to not appear too big for their boots when it comes to addressing an audience.

British public speaking website, Speak Like a Pro, emphasises that people who have the ability to laugh at themselves are generally perceived as being secure, confident, and likeable.

Weak people, on the other hand, tend to feel a need to inflate themselves.

Comedian Jon Richardson is the perfect example of the extremely likeable self-deprecator.

Sexy self-deprecation

A recent two-year study on ‘The Sexual Attractiveness of Self-Deprecating Humour’ found that self-deprecating humour is the most attractive type of humour.

Participants in the study listened to recordings of men and women who had different levels of status, and who produced different types of humour.

The most desirable mates proved to be men and women of high status who made use of self-deprecating humour.

A self-deprecating Hugh Grant steals Julia Roberts’ heart in Notting Hill
YouTube / PictureBox Films


The study warns that while effective, self-deprecation can be a risky form of humour as it can draw attention to one’s real faults and diminish the self-deprecator’s status.

Negative humour: Teasing and taking the piss

Besides finding it funny to self-denigrate, the British use those around them as sources of humour too.

As Julian Tan argues in an article for the Huffington Post, “Why else would you have an extra ‘u’ in humour if not for the fact that the joke is most often on you?”

A few years back a scientist claimed that typically British ‘negative humour’ which includes biting sarcasm, teasing, ridicule and self-denigration, is linked to genes only found in British men and women.

This claim followed a study conducted on 4,000 twins in the UK and US.

Dr Rod Martin, one of the researchers, said it is possible that differences exist between the UK and the US in their sense of humour as a result of different genetic and environmental influences.

The Brits use negative humour in a positive way


While classed as ‘negative humour’, for the British, to tease is to show approval and affection.

The same holds true for taking the piss (or taking the mickey), which quite literally means to mock and make fun of someone.

The Brits are also known to ‘take the piss’ in an attempt to deflate somebody of their mistaken belief that they are special. Again, this can be seen as affectionate.

Alternatively, negative humour can be used to chip away at narcissistic characters who take themselves too seriously.

British humour isn’t actually funny

Much of British humour is not obviously hilarious and does not result in fits of laughter.

According to anthropologist Kate Fox, “At best a well-timed quip only raises a slight smirk”.

The most difficult part of British humour for foreigners is that it is not often funny across cultures.

But those unaccustomed to British humour need not worry. For the best thing about British humour is that it is not something you can learn, it’s something that grows on you.

This article originally appeared on Brits in Pieces – Explore and make sense of British behaviour