Britishness, masculinity and humor

I’m still digesting the cornucopia of impressions and ideas that came out of our (The Economist‘s) powwow last week. One observation, not new but reinforced: Those Brits are unbelievably good at public speaking, at humorous and witty banter that nonetheless has a point–and indeed pointedness–and force.

There were of course all those presentations. But the performances that stood out were the after-dinner speeches by two of our “most British” writers, both cavalier Oxford types. They were a) hilarious and b) profound. The two can go together.

There they were, in front of all of us, lightly and sprightly bantering away, to smirks at first, then smiles, then chuckles and eventually full-throttle guffawing. And yet the topics were dead-serious. They were debating which of the many pressing world issues we should take on as our next “cause”.

(We were founded 160 years ago to campaign for free trade, and since then we have always pushed for one liberal and progressive cause or another–that’s “liberal” in the true, original sense of the word. Sometimes we actually win. Then we have to find a new cause.)

The Commons, moments before hilarity

The Commons, moments before hilarity

Perspective Number 1: Non-British

After the dinner, a German colleague and friend of mine came up to me, and we reflected how we continentals just don’t grow up in environments that instill this public-speaking culture. That is why we are so in awe of the Brits. We love watching the debates in the House of Commons. Or, for that matter, the debating that goes on in each and every one of our famous “Monday morning meetings” at The Economist. Really, it is a pleasure just to sit back and listen to the cadences and ironies and codas.

Perspective Number 2: Female

So impressed was I that I kept talking about this at lunch the next day, as I was sitting between two female colleagues. One of them, a very senior editor, immediately said: “But that’s just the men!”

I looked genuinely puzzled. Not because my years in the Inquisition politically-correct America have taught me to shut up whenever any topic remotely related to sex (or “gender”, as Americans say) comes up. But because I genuinely had no idea what she meant.

But the other female colleague knew exactly what she meant. “Absolutely,” she said. The British boys of a certain social class learn public-speaking and ironic and witty mano a mano verbal fighting from the day they enter Eton and Harrow or whatever “public” school they attend. The girls don’t so much.

“No, it’s more than that,” said the other female editor. “Men are just much funnier.” This is when I knew that this conversation, like all the others during that gathering, would become very interesting. But, Americanized as I am, I just listened. (Larry Summers, anyone?)

Among the theories advanced: In the Darwinian struggle to reproduce, humor may have become a male strategy to display “fitness” to the opposite sex. Interesting.

Then: Somebody proposed that, especially in humor-challenged cultures such as America, the funniest people tend in fact to be lesbian women. We pursued that for a while.

And so it went. Never a dull moment, when you’re hanging around us writers of The Economist…. 😉


7 thoughts on “Britishness, masculinity and humor

  1. When I was at the Oxford Union IV two years back, I thought it interesting how the Irish (perhaps the only ‘people’ I would consider funnier than the British) made a commotion when a team of theirs made it to the final round: unfurling a massive Irish flag and stopping the proceedings for at least 15 minutes. Apparently Americans tried this year and were booed so loudly by the rest of the audience they had to sit down.

  2. Were you there as a debater?
    Yes, I’ve always thought about how Irish humor differs from British. It definitely differs: more self-deprecation, somewhat rougher around the edges, and, yes, possibly even funnier….

    • Oh, let’s drop this charade.

      Channeling Jack Lemmon in the last scene of Some Like It Hot:

      I, too, now take off my wig and announce: “I’m a MAN!”

      Do you remember Osgood’s reply? “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

      🙂

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