Two Brits Debate: Are Americans Sarcasm-Literate?

‘The Big Bang Theory’ (Photo: CBS)

Two Brits-in-America discuss Americans and their use of sarcasm (or lack thereof).

Toni Hargis: I’d say many Brits have experienced Number 9 on the British People Problems list: “I phoned Netflix customer support, which is U.S. based, they were so overly polite I thought they were being sarcastic and hung up.”  (You can read more comments and examples on this topic here.)

I recently had a run-in with a major mailing and logistics company, which was made ten times worse by the sympathy and downright heartbreak expressed by customer service reps, none of whom could actually help me. I assume that’s part of the script, and if I hadn’t lived here for 22 years, it would certainly have come across as sarcasm. (I must confess after three days of this I went into Downton Dowager mode and snapped, “Yes, well sorrow’s all well and good but it isn’t actually getting us anywhere is it?”)

Ask a Brit how they are and you’ll get variations of “Oh, mustn’t grumble” or (god forbid) a run down of current ailments; ask an American the same question and the answer will almost certainly be in the positive. The least enthusiastic I think I’ve ever heard was “I’m good, thanks,” and it’s far more likely to be “Great” or “Awesome.” When my mother asks my American husband how he is, she is never quite sure whether his “Happy to be here” response is tongue in cheek or genuine. (It’s genuine, for the record.)

Americans are generally a happy, positive bunch and less apt to employ sarcasm on a day-to-day basis than us Brits, but that doesn’t mean they don’t get it.

Ruth Margolis: If you’re moving to America and concerned about falling victim to number 2 on BuzzFeed’s British People Problems list (“I live outside the U.K. so when I say ‘With all due respect’ nobody realizes I’m insulting them”), scratch it from your worry list.

Emigrating to the U.S., and becoming accustomed to its peoples’ quirks, has not necessitated an adjustment in my sarcasm usage. Americans get it and use it like pros. This means, when I’m in a restaurant having cleared my plate and my waitress asks, “How was it?” I’m free to reply with my standard, “Oh, just horrible, thanks.” She’ll most likely smirk and raise an eyebrow.

Understanding when someone’s being sarcastic, and being able to bat some back, comes down to wit and emotional intelligence, not nationality. Of course, there are times when I’ll utter something insincere, and the recipient will grow cross-eyed with confusion. But this is just as likely to happen in the U.K. as it is in the U.S. Usually, it signifies that either my delivery was off or the other person is a teeny bit dim.

Need more proof that Americans are as sarcasm-literate as the rest of us? Check out any U.S. sitcom. Even the bad ones are rammed with insincere snark. The Big Bang Theory has a running gag where one of its leads — a theoretical physicist with a negligible EQ — doesn’t understand when his friends are being sarcastic, which they are almost all of the time.

How do Americans and Brits differ in their use of sarcasm? Tell us below:


Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a British author who has lived in the USA since 1990. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom and The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students. She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV discussing US/UK matters.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.
View all posts by Ruth Margolis.
  • jamie b

    As an American, I dunno if you actually think Americans are this dense or if you’re being sarcastic.

    • Courtneys_keyboard

      Did you actually read the article? It says very clearly that comprehension of sarcasm is more based on intelligence (emotional or otherwise) than on nationality, and Americans are perfectly capable of understanding and using it just as Brits are.

      • Cameron Crossland

        ….was that sarcasm?

        • Bunny

          was that sarcasm? 😉

  • An American

    You would think something titled “A Brit’s Guide to Surviving America” would show more understanding of American culture. As an American, this is pretty frustrating to read. The “how are you?” question is simple. We don’t actually care how you are. Just say “fine.” If you’re in a great mood, say “great.” Of course we know the person at the call center doesn’t actually care about our problem. It’s a polite thing to say and nothing more. Americans seem friendly and cheerful to show politeness. Moodiness and going on and on about your personal issues is considered very rude and self centered. I think we can just say that American English and British English have pragmatic differences as well as linguistic differences. It isn’t that difficult to figure out.

    • Sean Middleton

      American English ?
      500’000 common words in the English language and another 500’000 used in science and nature
      There might be 100 words that have different meanings in the US , that doesn’t make that a totally different language called US English !!!

      • GeeBee

        There are a whole host of grammar/syntax differences as well as different words.

      • Aj

        I think the original poster meant it dialect-wise. For example, big rigs for lorries, rain boots for wellies, etc

  • Mustn’t Grumble

    If it’s any consolation, as an American who’s growing older, I grumble sarcastic remarks much more frequently than I used to.

  • Swift Reply

    Wow that was an amazing insight into the American mind! The English are so clever and astute. They still believe it when they hear “I just love your accent” It’s actually American for ‘with all due repect’

    • Kitty Sutton

      Please don’t speak for me. When I say “I just love your accent”, I truly mean it. I love the lilting melody of their speech. Just like I love the speech of the Irish. I am NEVER condescending or being antagonistic. Generally, Americans say what they mean. But, there are a few that are overly full of themselves and joke in a way that is offensive even to us.

      • AJ

        Please don’t tell me you love a Northern or Geordie accent. Not all Brits speak in that “lilting” manner. YouTube “Lauren Socha interview” or “Cheryl Cole”. I think you’d be more prone to covering your ears that enjoying it.

  • Karlsbddr

    Yes. Well, if you blokes insist on coming to America, you should really avoid using the English (mobstrs_ all of ’em!).
    I mean: are you all facetious, or do you really have something to say? At my age, I only a few kowtowings left to fawn, and what with you’re all so Brilliant!
    Oh, I’m so, so, sorry to have burst your red bubbles, luvs, but The Rolling Stones_ yeah and you know, we have heard them.

  • ABritishNaturalisedAmerican

    Dear BBCA, I am so fed-up with the sweeping generalisations you keep posting about Americans (and the British come to that) in these articles, “10 blah-blah-blah things Americans don’t understand blah-blah-blah about the British”, etc. There must have been about dozen of them by now. They were mildly entertaining to begin with, but they are now becoming boring and mildly offensive. Enough already, please change the subject.

  • Voltaire7

    I think it depends on the region. I grew up in the south, and any culture the uses “bless your heart” as a synonym for “f— you” clearly has a sense of sarcasm. The East Coast population as a whole has a strong hold on sarcasm. The West Coast is the opposite extreme, as I found when I was using my usual East Coast sarcastic banter at a party in suburban San Francisco and managed to mortally offend everyone there.

    • Birdie

      I live over here in the North-West states, and we’re pretty full of sarcastic banter. It might just be California because I ran into the same problem when visiting someone there as you did.

  • dandiiandiiful

    My grandmother says that enthusiastic sarcasm is my best trait. Nobody flaunts the fact that things bother them in America; you always, always act like life couldn’t be better–that’s just the culture. Somebody planning to kill themselves later on in the day would still respond with, “I’m good, how are you?”

  • dandiiandiiful

    My grandmother says that enthusiastic sarcasm is my best trait. Nobody flaunts the fact that things bother them in America; you always, always act like life couldn’t be better–that’s just the culture. Somebody planning to kill themselves later on in the day would still respond with, “I’m good, how are you?”

  • asdfasfd

    WTF is an “EQ”?

  • Sabrina W

    We do get sarcasm, but after reading this article, it seems like British and American sarcasm are different. I promise we Americans understand sarcasm.

  • kez

    I laughed a bit at the first paragraph. ive done the same before. but this is a positive guide. very well done.

  • jonny

    It’s not that Americans don’t understand sarcasm, it’s just that we don’t place such value on it as Brits do. Americans are taught to be friendly and welcoming from an early age. We are taught about possibilities and opportunities and that life is a good thing. Oscar Wilde (perhaps) said the difference between England and the US is that in America, we are told that we CAN do a thing, not that we can’t. I think that it’s easier to just assume that Americans don’t understand sarcasm than to look at the route of why sarcasm is such a ‘art form’ in the UK. Americans are loud because we’re excited about possibilities, and we smile and use positive language because we believe that life is good.

  • RobertRBest

    As an American who just found this article, I find it hilarious that a British “debate” consists of two people who think the same thing, but one feels sightly more strongly about it.

  • Vera

    Sarcasm is a prerequisite for middle/high school in the US.