Ha ha, bonk … that English sense of humour and crossed cultural communications

I was delighted that my last post picked up a reader in Slovenia.  But when I re-read it in the light of that international audience, I saw  just how steep a learning curve I am on in terms of international communication.

It was that humour thing that tripped me up.  Again.  I should know it’s dangerous stuff  that I should not carelessly leave lying around.  Especially the English variety that is renowned for being incomprehensible to the rest of the world. And I was careless.  In my final flourish I decided to embellish my quite serious post about humour with a cartoon.  I dug around a bit and found one I thought was quite funny:

One in the eye for the English

Now look at that through Slovenian eyes (or even Thai eyes, Australian eyes, American eyes or German eyes) and it makes no sense at all. This humour truly does not cross cultural boundaries – probably the best reason for using it very warily.

So now as a penance and to share my learning, I will explain why you have to be English to ‘get’ this joke – and hence why it was a disaster in an international communication medium.

Firstly, you have to recognise, simply from the graphic style, that this is from the Bayeux Tapestry, sewn by Norman women in the late 11th century.  Don’t ask me why, but most English people would know this straight away.

Secondly, you need to know that the Bayeux Tapestry depicts what we call the Battle of Hastings which happened at probably the one date that we all know – 1066.  How crazy is that – it’s nine and a half centuries ago and it’s almost certainly the best known date in English history (except, maybe, for 1966 when we won the World Cup – but that’s another story).

Popular English history begins (and often ends) in 1066

Thirdly, being English, you would also know the Big Fact about the Battle of Hastings is that Harold (the good guy) was  killed by an arrow in his eye. (I should be clear at this point that this is English Histopry as she is told, not as it happened or as it has been researched.  Actually those Norman needlewoman propagandists have a lot to answer for…)

So If you were English you would get all that from the picture. Amazing.

Fourthly , and turning to the words, you need to know that the most English response to a total and unmitigated disaster of the “I came home from work found my husband in bed with the neighbour’s daughters, I screamed, my dog ran into the road and was squashed flat by a double deck bus” variety is ‘Well, it’s all part of Life’s rich tapestry‘.  So crazily bonkers and inadequate that I am laughing already.  It seems we love to laugh at calamity, and pretend it just adds colour and texture, and breaks up what might other be a repetive and dull pattern. Crazy, insane. Probably inhuman.

But to an English person, like me, VERY FUNNY.

So now look again at that cartoon – it’s a tapestry, right? With a disaster, yes? And some one is saying (ooh, this is too hilarious!) “It’s part of Life’s rich… (ha ha ha) tapestry!!” Yes! And it’s on a tapestry.  (HO HO HO HO.) It shows a collosal defeat for my country that led to years of oppression, which is etched on our national consciousness. That’s right.  So we’ll call it a bit of colourful embroidery.  (HAW HAW HAW.)

That, my friends, is the English sense of humour laid bare.  This is what it’s like to be English.

And it’s why that was such an extremely poor piece of international communication, for which I apologise wholeheartedly. It highlights far, far better than my last post some pitfalls of using cartoons in interpretation.

Question:  So what goes hahahahaha – BONK! ?   Answer: An Englishwoman laughing her head off!!

(See? disaster, bloodshed, a bit of punning – it’s that English sense of humour again – and I’m giggling like a hyaena!)


About susancrosstelltale

Great visits to heritage and natural sites do not happen by accident. This blog is about the work that make special sites great places to visit. I hope it will be useful to visitors and host alike. Find out more at me and my blog.
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6 Responses to Ha ha, bonk … that English sense of humour and crossed cultural communications

  1. Andy Ford says:

    Thanks Susan, excellent post as usual. It made me stop, stare out of the window and wonder about all sorts of things. Personal elaboration…
    And perhaps as well as a highpoint of interpretation, that’s part of British humour as well? The sense of achievement in putting the pieces together. Like a cryptic crossword clue that takes all day (or week in my case) to solve. We can be snobby about making people laugh as well – how very British!

    • Hi Andy, thanks for the comment, greatly appreciated.

      I like your point about problem solving and humour very much. I agree with you about that cryptic crossword thing (and I am nearly as good at them as you are). Getting to that “Ah ha! I get it! What a clever devil I am!’ moment s part of the fun – and especially in that cartoon.

      Your comment set me off thinking … . And, as you will see (hopefully) in my next post I then serendipitously and delightfully stumbled across a bit of interpretation that used exactly that technique. Which I might not have noticed if I hadn’t been pondering on puzzles and humour – there’s something in this theming and elaboration after all!!!

      All best

  2. cautiouskev says:

    Wonderful Susan! The scarey part is that I actually get the joke(s), even though I’m Australian. Something about the incredibly Anglo-centric education some people of my age received. I’m glad about the humour side of that, even if I can take or leave1066, Magna Carta and chip butties.

    • Hmmm, That is a bit scarey Kev but also interesting and a bit comforting. I am glad someobne understands us! Glad too that you enjoyed the post. Yes, I noticed the anglo-centric bit when I was over in WA last year -some Aussies made me feel quite ignorant about the UK!!

      There are chip butties …. and then there are proper chip butties

  3. Regan says:

    Good post about the many layers of cultural knowledge that can underpin a simple one-liner.

    The first couple of years I lived in UK, “Have I got news for you” sailed straight over my head. Fast forward a few years and back in my homeland, it’s interesting to see how my partner has now lived in Australia long enough to appreciate cultural reference points for Aussie humour.

    As an aside, the Bayeux Tapestry might be better known outside of England than you might first assume – it was the theme of a Simpsons couch gag for instance.

    • Thanks Regan, I too have experienced ‘not getting the joke at all’, interestingly more in the US, and more embarrassingly, being the only person having a belly laugh in a cinema. But it’s all part of Life’s … oh No!

      But most of all I valued the Simpson reference. That me feel hugely better about the joke. But even more mystifies about why the Bayeux Tapestry and its signicance travelled across the Atlantic (which I assume is what happened. Why?

      Feels like a bit of research is needed.

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