March 5, 2021

Your guide to British humour in business

Humour is a big part of building relationships in the UK, even in business contexts. But it is not always obvious when a British person is making a joke so it can be very confusing! Here’s a guide to British humour: when to use it, what to expect and what it usually says about your business relationship.

When is humour appropriate? 

The truth is, some humour is used in many situations in the UK. It’s used to ‘break the ice’ when meeting someone new, to overcome embarrassing situations and even to lighten the mood if you receive bad news. Humour is used as a way to build relationships and deal with emotional events.

This said, the British are often seen as serious because it is not always obvious that the speaker is joking. Understatement, self-deprecating humour, banter and sarcasm are all types of humour where what the speaker says is not what the speaker actually means. The jokes can also be said in a ‘dead-pan’ way (with no emotion), which makes it even more difficult to notice!

Here are different types of humour you may notice:

Understatement

Understatement is used a lot in the UK and it’s probably the easiest one to spot and replicate. Even in business situations, an understatement about the weather is a neutral ‘joke’, which can help break the ice when you first meet someone.

Imagine there is a hurricane outside, a Brit might say “It’s a bit windy out there!”

Obviously, it is more than a BIT windy. This is meant as a humorous comment to break the ice.

Other understatement may be: “We’re having a bit of trouble” – when something terrible has happened

Use this humour to break the ice when you first meet someone.

Self-deprecation

This is when someone makes a joke about themself, especially their flaws.

The intention is to make them seem more humble and approachable. The intention isn’t to complain about how terrible they really are and it isn’t a way of trying to get compliments (usually). It’s funny because they appear confident but they can laugh at themself.

However, don’t use self-deprecating humour too much or you will just seem very unconfident. It should be delivered in a positive way even though you are saying something negative.

Examples:

A: Would you like a coffee?

B: Yes, please! I’m useless without my caffeine fix!

This type of humour is useful for building relationships because arrogance, self-importance, and boasting about your achievements are often viewed as negative and modesty is appreciated.

‘Banter’

Being able to have ‘banter’ with someone is the ultimate goal of any relationship. This means to be able to tease each other without either of you taking offence. You could hear some very nasty things said to each other between friends but it is not meant to be taken seriously. You can usually tell by the tone of voice, the facial expressions, and gestures that they are only joking.

Confusingly, when a British person teases you or has ‘friendly banter’ with you, it probably means they really like you.

An example of banter is:

A: Can I ask you a question?

B: Sure you can ask a question, whether you’ll get an answer is another thing altogether.

Don’t try to do banter too soon. Being able to banter is a sign of intimacy and trust. It is only banter if it is equal, otherwise, it’s bullying.  If someone says something offensive but calls it ‘banter’ and you feel very uncomfortable, tell them. Offensive behaviour is never OK!

Sarcasm

Sarcasm is the reason that the British might have a reputation for being nasty.

The other forms of humour discussed are ironic (because you say one thing but mean something else). They tend to be friendly, whereas sarcasm can be used in a  more passive-aggressive way. Sarcasm can be a part of banter but you really have to know someone to use it.

Examples:

A: I’m so tired

B: You must be reeeeally tired when you’re sitting around doing nothing all day!

This could be just a joke between friends or it could be passive-aggressive depending on the situation. Be careful! You can usually tell it’s a joke by the delivery, which will be exaggerated and sometimes followed by a smile or “I’m only joking” or the idiom ” I’m pulling your leg”.

If you’re not sure how to use it, it’s best to avoid sarcasm. Just use an understatement, a little self-deprecating humour, and some friendly banter when you really know someone.

So how can you notice when someone is joking?

If what is said is opposite to the situation, it is likely that the speaker is trying to be funny.

Remember, the type of humour someone uses with you can indicate the level of your relationship. If you can banter with each other, this is a good sign! (But it must be equal!)

If you are unsure when to joke, follow the other person’s lead. If they make a joke, then it is appropriate for you to do too. But, start with something more neutral like an understatement about the weather!

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