American Irony

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 4 min.

The other day I was listening to an online lecture in which the following scenerio occurred (I’m paraphrasing in spots, but the salients remain intact):

British Lecturer: Suppose a student comes in late to class the fifth day in a row and I say to her, “Early again are we?” What have I really said?

Class of British Adults Attending Beginning Philosophy Lectures: She’s arrived late again.

Lecturer: Right, my meaning is not the literal interpretation of the actual words, but is dependent on [certain factors]. You know perfectly well what I mean if you are an English-speaking person.

Man in the Class, Interjecting (this one’s a quote): Isn’t it cultural? If you said that in America they wouldn’t know what you were talking about.

(End of re-creation.)

What? The lecturer responds, saying some stuff about cultural conventions that come into play when people communicate ideas, then comments that although it is supposed that Americans don’t use irony, she’s sure that sometimes they do, though she can’t think of an instance (she characterized Jon Stewart as being sarcastic, not ironic; I assume her distinction has to do with degrees of subtlety/dryness and possibly context, but considering the obviousness of the “late student” example she gave, an explanation would have been nice).

I tried to shrug this off because, really, who cares, right? Well, I guess I care, as that was a few days ago and it’s still gnawing at me. It wasn’t just that the (smug, “I’ve got you now teacher” sounding) adult student was ignorant, it was that the (smart and seasoned) lecturer herself didn’t have a proper response to the stereotype. Maybe she hasn’t been to the U.S. or had any American friends, or maybe she was just too tired to address the issue after over an hour of having to field the constant attempts from her students to challenge just about every other thing she said.

I’ve run into this kind of thinking before, by the way. I once met some young British men in Paris when I was in my mid-20s who were hilarious afficionados and practicioners of sarcasm, just as many of my back-home American friends were at the time (in fact, neither of these guys were ever as complex in their practice as my American friend whom I once heard being elaborately sarcastic while sleep-talking). My new British friends were happily surpised to discover, very much contrary to their expectations, that Americans not only understood sarcasm, but could engage in it. (Incidentally, one of them asked me, “But isn’t it true that Americans don’t understand sarcasm?” The word “irony” never came up.)

The best (well, my favorite anyway) argument I’ve heard for American irony/sarcasm comes from a British man I blogged about recently, Stephen Fry, in one of his Blessay/Podgrams:

“Incidentally, forgive a detour here, but if there is one misapprehension about Americans that annoys me more than any other, it is the lofty claim, usually made by the most dim-witted and wit-free Britons, that America is an – ho-ho – “irony free zone”. Let it be established here, this day, that no one, on pain of being designated fifty types of watery twat, ever dare repeat that feeble, ignorant, self-satisfied canard ever ever again. Americans are no more irony illiterate than Britons or anyone else and the repeated assertion (and it is no more than an assertion not a demonstrable provable fact) is no more than a pathetic symbol of a certain kind of Briton’s flabby need to convince themselves of their sophisticated superiority over the average American. Now, don’t feel bad about the fact that you, dear listener/reader have, at some point in the past been guilty of repeating and transmitting this feeble myth, we all have. It’s lazy, easy and gives us a warm glow. My war on the lie begins now, and is not retrospective, so you need not feel ashamed. Only promise never to repeat it. Actually, even if you think it’s true, have the grace to recognise that such a clunking, tedious, oft-repeated cliché is so dull and well-worn that it almost doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not, it’s just plain tedious and only bar-stool bores and dull-witted gibbons would ever think it worth trotting out. Besides, it is ugly, graceless and rude.”

Thank you, Stephen, for saying this in terms that the Briton can relate to (does “watery twat” mean what I think it does??).

Finally, I’m reminded now of something I read some years ago (only a few months after the abovementioned Parisian trip, in fact) in a book called Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, in which Whitehead (a British philosopher who died in 1947) is quoted as saying:

“Irony, I would say, signifies the state of mind of people or of an age which has lost faith. They conceal their loss, or even flaunt it by laughter. You seldom get irony except from people who have been somehow more or less cleaned out.”

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Further Reading

17 Replies to “American Irony”

  1. I think that (1) Stephen Fry makes some sense, but he uses too damn many words to say very little; and (2) irony is embraced especially hard by folks who not only are “cleaned out” but also lack the courage to actually take a position and stand for it sincerely.

  2. Oh, I love Fry’s style, all those extra words he uses for emphasis and color, though I first encountered this particular quote on his podcast where it was spoken out loud and came across as a lively rant. So, I can’t help but imagine his spoken delivery when I read it, which maybe makes it more dynamic for me.

  3. Your example of the late student is an example of sarcasm, not irony. Unless, of course, you actually know that, in which are case, are you using the fact that Americans don’t know the difference between sarcasm and irony as an example of irony ?

  4. Hi The Difference –

    To clarify, it was the British philosophy professor giving a lecture on Philosophy of Language who used the “late to class” scenario as an example of irony, not me. Therefore, it’s the British professor who, according to you, doesn’t know the difference between irony and sarcasm.


  5. Hi Dan,

    I have re-read then article; your example of the exchange relating to a student’s lateness between the lecturer and his/her class does not actually come to any conclusion in relation to if the lecturer is implying he/she is giving an example of irony or sarcasm.

    But, as the title is “American Irony” I assumed that the example you were giving was that of irony, which, as I as initially stated, is actually an example of sarcasm.

    The Difference.

  6. Hi again, The Difference –

    Yeah, that’s what I was clarifying in my response to you (I can see how my post might be unclear in this regard): the professor explicity used the “late to class” scenario as an example of irony, and she said that it was not an example of sarcasm. At any rate, “irony” vs “sarcasm” wasn’t the point of my post. My point was, at the very least, that Americans would understand the “late to class” example to mean the opposite of what the words suggest at face value. It was hilarious to me that someone would think that an American wouldn’t get that.

    In this context, you can call it “irony” (as the teacher did) or “sarcasm” (as you are, and as I usually would and will continue to do), but either word is fine. I also thought it was funny when she said, essentially, “Jon Stewart is really using more sarcasm than irony, while my example of the late student is irony, not sarcasm.” I would call both sarcasm, because that’s how I talk. She, the professor, apparently has some criteria for distinguishing the two that she did not share in her lecture (I’ve also seen essays here and there pointing out subtle differences between the two things, upon which, seemingly, no two scholars agree).

    I hope that clears up whatever misunderstanding we are having here.


  7. Dan: Sure, this might have been true in the past, before we started getting their TV shows on PBS and BBC America :-

    Thanks for this–thought this was fascinating. It is shocking and a bit hilarious to find out just how dumb the rest of the world thinks we are!

    I was searching for this post again to forward to a friend, and came across this related discussion of British vs. American humor by Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead):

    I assume that this myth predates Alanis’s infamous song–Have you seen Irish comedian Ed Byrne’s bit?: “The only ironic thing about that song is it’s called ‘Ironic’ and it’s written by a woman who doesn’t know what irony is. That’s quite ironic.” Byrne then tries to give the song ‘the benefit of the doubt’ by coming up with scenarios where the various unfortunate incidents, mentioned in the song, actually would represent irony: [H/T Wikipedia]

  8. I know, look at how popular The Office UK is here… though it is generally more subtle than the American version.

    Regarding Alanis, I used to laugh about how the only thing ironic about that song was that nothing in it was ironic, but then I saw an interview where she addressed that and said something to the effect of “yeah, I know that now, but I was just a kid then.”

    Thanks for sharing the Pegg link, that’s great!

  9. I think you would love this article on the difference between American and Britih humour.
    Definitely check it out.

    While the Americans clearly do understand Irony and Sarcasm (And have bread some of the great examples of it Frasier, MASH, Marx Brothers, Lenny Bruce ect) I do believe we use it in different ways.
    Firstly I would say that Sarcasm is a simpler more obvious form of Irony. And most Americans use sarcasm much more then they do Irony.
    In the UK we have the saying “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit”. And from my time spent in America, I do find that Americans make it much clearer that they are using sarcasm, by overstating it or appending “Just kidding”.
    British irony and sarcasm is alot stealthier and dry, preferring to run under the surface (probably because we are more emotionally reserved/repressed) The idea being, the less obvious a joke, the more funny it is.

    Americans are much more comfortble in directly expressing emotions, therefore they tend to use irony as a comedy show piece. Where as in the UK, we tend to use it as a trojan horse, to get across some point without alarming too many emotional trip wires.

  10. This highlights the difference between Irony and sarcasm quite well.

    Person A: “I can’t believe you’re so stupid”
    Person B: “Oh yeah, because you’re real clever” (Sarcasm)
    Person A: “What’s that quote? ‘Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit'”
    Person B: “Well Oscar Wilde said, ‘quotation is a substitute for wit'” (Irony)

  11. @alex:

    Thanks for posting. Your Persons A & B example is interesting and well-noted. I would like to make a further distinction using that example.

    Person A makes a sarcastic remark. This remark, however, is ONLY sarcastic if he intends it to be sarcastic. Person B’s remark, on the other hand, is ironic whether he intends it to be ironic or not. I would argue that if Person B does intend his statement to actually be ironic, then what we have is an example of sarcasm.

    With this in mind, it seems that all things which are sarcasm are also examples of irony (Person A’s remark is both sarcastic and ironic because he is saying the opposite of what he believes to be true), but all examples of irony are not sarcasm (Person B’s remark is definitely ironic, but is only sarcastic if he is intentionally ironically using the Wilde quote).

    At any rate, all I have to go on here is personal experience, within which I have definitely encountered British people who have been surprised when I readily understood their “sarcasm,” (as they put it: “Is it true that Americans don’t get sarcasm?”), and I’m not referring to British expat’s living in the States; nor have I lived in the UK.

    As far as subtlety goes, it does seem to be a cultural thing. I would say that there are certain sub-cultures or, perhaps better put, groups and sub-groups in the States who use a more subtle sarcasm than others, and therefore become wont to append “just kidding” or over-emphasize their inflections if they’re not certain about the sensitivity of the listener to such things (or to clarify that no malice is intended). I’d be willing to bet that the same is true in England, but with different indicators/signals (including indicators that make instances of sarcasm less subtle to those initiated within England overall, and even more so within the sub-groups [say, a group of five 14-year-old girls who have been close friends for a few years and are in school together]).

    Also, I have made sarcastic remarks to British people who didn’t get that I was being sarcastic because the sarcasm was expected to be picked up based on context, with no special inflection, no “just kidding.” Perhaps not culturally initiated/not expecting that sort of dry humor from an American, they just thought I was saying something stupid (similar to Person B’s above statement being taken as unintentional irony, but with an even less obviously ironic statement; admittedly, a lot of Americans wouldn’t grasp this sort of sarcasm either unless they know the speaker really well; sometimes Americans just thought I was saying something stupid as well… this was a result of my attempting to use the sort of extremely dry sarcasm I’d use with High School friends outside of the context of that High School clique; I don’t do it much anymore, if ever).

    Anyway, I wonder how many times British people have heard an American say something sarcastic but not realized it was sarcasm (that is, intentional irony) due to expectations of how Americans communicate, or lack of cultural initiation.

    Finally, I really don’t think we’re talking about subtlety here. In the example I give above – of British adult students attending a Philosophy of Language lecture – well, there is not a healthy-brained American alive (above the age of, I don’t know, 5?) who wouldn’t understand the exceedingly blatant example used by the teacher. There’s nothing subtle about it. What is it that makes the people in the class think otherwise aside from a simple – though apparently pervasive – cultural misconception? One of many, I’m sure, that any culture has for any other culture.

  12. It sounds like Stephen Fry is more upset that such a statement is too oft used so that it becomes bleak, lazy and graceless. I didn’t see any points to prove that America isn’t an “irony free zone”.

    Probably, this has developed into, or soon will develop into, a rather guilty pleasure. Can’t the Brits bask in the glow that they seem to understand better than the American counterparts who are considered mighty in terms of military and economy? Yet, to point out the obvious also seems rather tasteless, and ironically, makes them more similar to the Americans, if anything.

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