As a nation Brits aren’t generally known for being self-congratulatory. Taking a compliment can be awkward and recalling an achievement without following it up with a self-deprecating joke just isn’t the done thing. However, one thing that Brits do incredibly well is sarcasm. The good old dry British sense of humour is how I communicate about 80 percent of the time. It has been said that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but if you ask me it's actually the highest form of intelligence. However, YouGov has found that British sarcasm is lost on Americans. The love for a bit of facetiousness isn’t universal and the poll found that more gets lost in translation than you might think.
A new YouGov Omnibus survey used funny memes to show how foreigners may not understand the sarcastic subtext to well-loved British sayings. I know what you are thinking, a study based on sarcasm and memes? Where can I sign up?
The study involved showing Brits and Americans well-used English phrases before asking them to choose from two possible meanings. And the results revealed that British passive aggressiveness doesn’t always register with Americans.
After being shown the phrase, “with the greatest respect…” 68 percent of Brits took this to mean: “I think you are an idiot” whereas 49 percent of Americans believed thought it meant: “I am listening to you.” That’s a pretty big misunderstanding. Elsewhere, 43 percent of Americans took “I’ll bare that in mind” as meaning “I will probably do it.” However, 55 percent of Brits said they thought it meant “I’ve forgotten it already.” The poll revealed that 48 percent of Brits believed “I hear what you say” as just a way of disagreeing with someone and cutting a conversation short. On the other hand, 58 percent of Americans simply believed this was a phrase used to accept someone’s point of view.
It is easy to miss sarcasm over text but it seems to be so ingrained in what it means to be British. Is it really the case that Brits and Americans have differing senses of humour? Dr Rod Martin is a researcher who has spent time looking into the British and American sense of humour using the UK and U.S. version of The Office as a key comparison. He told the Independent, “the British may have a greater tolerance for a wide range of expressions of humour, including what many Americans might consider aggressively sarcastic or denigrating: like Fawlty Towers and Blackadder. In the North American version of The Office the lead character is much less insensitive and intolerant than in the original UK version,"
You only have to look at British comedic icons like Billy Connolly, Ricky Gervais, and Richard Ayoade to recognise that as a nation, many Brits enjoy a bit of passive aggressiveness. It’s a way of laughing at things that are otherwise awkward or sad.
The stereotype of the repressed Brit only fuels the idea that past experiences are swept under the carpet or made a joke of. I would say maybe it is time to take a leaf out of the Americans' book and become more of a straight talker, but at this point I’m not sure I can.