Both Americans and British fall toward the low-context end of the Communicating scale (i.e., they speak more explicitly than most cultures), but the British speak more between the lines than Americans do, a tendency particularly apparent with British high-context humour.
Many British people are fond of delivering ironic or sarcastic jokes with a completely deadpan face. Unfortunately, this kind of humour is lost on many Americans; they may suspect the British person is joking but they don’t dare laugh, just in case he is not.
As a result, the British often say that Americans “don’t understand irony.”
A more precise explanation, however, is that Americans are simply more low-context than the British. So when Americans make a joke, especially in a professional setting, they are likely to indicate clearly through explicit verbal or physical cues, “This is a joke” — something totally unnecessary when one British person speaking to another (in their higher-context culture, if you have to tell us it was a joke, then it wasn’t worth the breath you used to tell it).
Alastair Murray, a British manager living in Dubai, offers this example:
I was participating in a long-distance bike race across the UAE desert with hundreds of participants. In order to be collegial, I took a turn riding in front of another biker in order to break the headwind for him and help him save a little energy. A stranger had recently done the same for me.
A little later the biker peddled up next to me and said in a thick American accent, “Thanks very much for your help!”
I replied, “Oh, sure! But I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known you were American.”
To someone British it would have been clear that this was a joke, and even a sort of gentle reaching-out of friendliness. But as I delivered it straight-faced and with a serious voice, the American didn’t seem to get it. He rode next to me in silence, beginning to pull slightly to the side.
So then I thought about how often Americans say “just kidding” after a joke. So I gave it a go. I told him, “Oh, hey, just kidding!”
And he responded, “Oh! All right! Ha ha! That was a good one. Where are you from?”
Oh, gosh, I thought. . . . these literal Americans!
This excerpt was posted with permission from “The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business” (2014) by INSEAD professor Erin Meyer, from PublicAffairs.
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