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:

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.

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