Friday, January 25, 2013

Those Long Winter Nights

The main thing that I don’t miss about an English Winter is not so much the weather, but actually the long nights.  I can take the cold and I actually like snow (as long as it’s fresh and not slushy), but the extended periods of darkness can just be plain depressing.

The problem is that if the daytimes are overcast in England, you can actually spend a week or more when it never seems to get light.  You get up in darkness, go to work in darkness, spend the day indoors looking out at the greyness and then return home in the dark.  The experience of being stuck inside can also be exaggerated by an element of claustrophobia in many cases, given that the size of rooms and houses are generally more modest in England, compared with the USA.

I have long speculated that the darkness contributes to the melancholic streak in the English character.  Just as the US is 2 notches to the right on the political scale, Blighty is 2 notches towards miserableness on the chirpiness meter.

Not everyone in the US lives in Florida, of course.  Some of the northern states have winters much harsher than Northern England, or even Highland Scotland, for that matter.  Some US Northerners, nicknamed ‘Snowbirds’ travel down to Florida for the Winter months in order to avoid the worst of it. 

December in St Augustine, Florida
I do miss having four distinct seasons, though.  In Florida it is (almost too) hot and humid from May to September; sunny and comfortable for Spring (March to April) and Autumn (October to November); with the Winter months being more like October in the UK: cold, but only occasionally freezing.  Actually, that’s not true, the Florida nights can be cold, but the daytimes are often sunnier and warmer than a typical Summer’s day in England.  

Ironically, because the Winter can be so dark and miserable in England, Spring can be a truly joyous time - when, much to everyone’s relief, Nature literally seems to ‘spring’ back to life after lying dormant for what seems like an age.  You don’t get that in Florida.  It just gets gradually hotter (and stickier) from February onwards.

Snow in Headingley, Leeds
I am certainly not moaning.  I can play tennis here all year round here, which is pretty amazing.  The Winter in Florida, if anything, can be better for outdoor sports.  I still remember the singles match I played at the height of Summer, when it was over a 100 degrees F and even the spectators in the shade were dripping with perspiration – it was more like a war of attrition than a sporting contest!

It is also true to say that human cultures always tend to adapt to their situation and make the most of it.  The ‘indoor culture’ in England has no doubt contributed to its wealth of literature, music, and numerous hobbies and pastimes.  There is also no real equivalent in Florida of stumbling up a snow covered hill, entering a pub with a real fire, and supping a foamy pint of warm ale whilst you thaw out.

English Winters can still be depressing though…  

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Monday, January 14, 2013

More British and American humor differences

I have written about this topic before, but I was inspired to explore it further after stumbling upon a fascinating Stephen Fry video recently (more on that later!).  Humour really is a fascinating area - what people find funny really does give an insight into their philosophy, culture, and general world outlook.

Some of the feedback that I got previously was that some Americans felt I was a little harsh in my previous writings, where I said that Americans were generally more serious and that a lot of British humour gets lost in translation in the US, particularly irony. 

I will try to explain these two points a little more, but first I think it’s worth pointing out that I suspect the average American maybe underestimates how many differences there are, when it comes to British and American humor.  Yes, there are large areas of overlap, but also major differences.  Okay, you may have seen Monty Python and Mr Bean, but humour operates differently in all sorts of ways in the UK that don’t generally reach or work on this side of the Atlantic.


One major difference that I remember the US writer, Bill Bryson pointing out in his book: I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away, is that humour generally is far more revered in the UK than in the USA.  Bryson cites the classic (and rather great) John Cleese quote that: “An Englishman would rather be told he’s a bad lover than he has no sense of humour”.

You can actually get away with almost anything in the UK, as long as it is presented as humour.  You can insult the queen, your employer, religion, the army, whatever, as long as you do it right and make some people laugh.  Even if someone were mildy offended they wouldn’t generally protest, they tend to be more worried about appearing to have no sense of humour, which, as Cleese says, is a major taboo in the UK.  America, with its diverse population, devout religious communities, and occasionally rigid political correctness, can sometimes seem very sensitive from a British perspective.
A portion of British humour might be also labelled as “smart” in the US, where although some people might find it funny, you can also get into trouble for it more easily than you would in the UK.

Of course, it's also true to say that British irony can also very easily devolve into cynicism and sarcasm too, which are less appealing sides of the English psyche.
Americans are more serious?

Generally speaking, the American philosophy and approach to life is very different in certain respects.  Americans are generally optimistic: life is an opportunity for success and it has real meaning and there are always avenues of improvement open.  The British philosophy tends to be much more downbeat: yes, life can be good, but often it can be an ordeal, tinged with absurdity, and sometimes you just have to just grin and bear it.

Mark Twain
What gets lost?

What Bill Bryson describes as “verbal sleights of hand” are just far less common in the US.  Wordplay, double entendre, and yes, irony, are far rarer here and the average American often just doesn’t expect such trickery to occur in general conversation and so it goes straight past them.  (When I was first living here, I had the opposite problem, I tended to over-analyse things that Americans said, when almost always, they were being completely literal.)

That doesn’t mean that I am saying that all Americans don’t get irony, by the way, it is more a question of degree.  Obviously, there have been many great American humorists, such as Mark Twain, who were masters of ironic humour and there were thousands of Americans  who bought his books and found them funny.

The humour differences can make things difficult sometimes though, if you are a British expat.  We Brits don’t do overt shows of emotion much, so when our ability to communicate through language and humour are limited, it can feel a little stifling sometimes.

Stephen Fry

Anyway, back to the excellent Stephen Fry video that I mentioned at the start.  In it, Fry explores another aspect of British and American humor that differs considerably.

Essentially, the British comic hero tends to be a loser.  He or she has high aspirations (and may also be pompous, or pretentious), but he/she is constantly failing to pull him or herself out of the hole. 

The American comic hero, on the other hand, tends to be a success - he or she is a wisecracker, throwing out clever quips at the expense of the idiots that surround him or her.

Americans tend to celebrate success.  Brits love a failure.

Fry says it better than me though…