Did you watch the Golden Globes awards the other night? I didn’t, but I rather enjoyed watching Ricky Gervais do his introduction (courtesy of YouTube and literally hundreds of contributors). It may be one of the larger gaps between image and reality . . . the way Americans think Brits talk and how they slag one another off:
Anyone from anywhere can be cruel, anyone from anywhere can be witty, but there is something particularly British about cruel wit. John Lennon, with his withering remarks about Ringo Starr (“Not even the best drummer in The Beatles”) and the avant-garde (“French for bullshit”), had it. Writers past (Evelyn Waugh) and present (AA Gill) have it. George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, has it, and gets into political scrapes when he flaunts it.
The anything-goes approach applies as much to everyday conversation as it does to comedy, where the subject of British irreverence has been analysed to death (and where America has plenty of acid-tongued geniuses itself). It feels natural to those of us who grew up with it, but British banter — the playfully barbed conversational style adopted by groups of friends in bars, offices and even classrooms up and down the country — can baffle and perturb foreigners. It is especially jarring when set against the popular image of Britain as a more decorous and civil place than most. Even tamer badinage in this country can, to a foreign ear, sound like enmity. The moment the ice is truly broken between two newly acquainted Britons is when one teases the other about something. Reginald D Hunter, an American comedian who does most of his work over here, says Britain is the only country where people will introduce you to a friend by saying “This is my mate Barry, he’s a bit of a twat.”
America is a land of Regency etiquette in comparison. So much so that it pays any Briton to be a bit more mindful of what he says and how he says it when enjoying the company of Americans (with the exception of fervently Anglophile Americans who, judging by friends of mine who fit that description, are caustic conversationalists). The rules are just different. For example, the c-word, which in Britain has lost much of its toxicity, remains a no-no.