no. 41 - irony, humor

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To the unwary American, iron humor is usually met with perplexity

Sometimes it feels like you’re missing out on the all the fun, especially when it comes to joking around. Nearly all the humor you encounter doesn’t seem funny at all. At least not the funny-ha-ha way you’re accustomed to. All the usual signals for humor seem to be missing and the wit doesn’t register, so you miss it. Once you know what to look for though, this ironic humor is a relief. You realize, pretty much everyone is joking around. A lot.


One reason North Americans don’t “get” this pervasive irony is through no fault of their own. We are explicit communicators because we had to be. The USA is a nation that needs a language to serve a many people, from many places quickly, simply, and effectively with clarity. So, whether it’s written or the spoken word, no further interpretation is required. No back story. Bottom line.

Psychologically, cultures are like people. The USA is a “young” society, free of enduring severe hardship or calamity, so we don’t behave with the wisdom that comes from those experiences. Older societies, on the other hand (the rest of the world) inherit some or all of the nation’s traumatic history such as war, famine, disease, drought, invasion, and/or occupation (some simultaneously). How they cope differs, and not always in a healthy way, but they do. Many bury their emotions in macabre humor or ironic understatement.


Irony is like the tea kettle whistling in the corner, and it’s always on. To the unwary American, irony is met with perplexity. It’s more like the teapot itself, something to be used when the occasion demands it. When Americans use irony, there’s an immediate need to give it a disclaimer, qualifying it as being so, with a jovial “just kidding,” even if the statement is outrageous and plainly ironic.

With the usual signals for humor missing to you, irony may not register. However, once you know what to look for and learn to “listen loudly,” it will be a relief. You’ll soon discover, pretty much everyone is joking around, a lot. When you’re the one doing the kidding, restrain your delivery. When others are kidding around, act nonplussed. 

Visit my website Expat Whisperer for expat coaching packs or listen to my original podcasts on demand. You might also enjoy the always fascinating culture blog feed that deconstructs everyday life. Or, take one of my labs you won’t find anywhere else. I may be travelling somewhere in the world, but you can always find me on LinkedIn, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.

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