There’s a long-standing belief in the UK that Americans don’t get irony. There is some truth to this, but it isn’t the whole truth. I admire American no-nonsense-get-things-done forthright attitude. Americans can complain in ways that an Englishman of my class and generation can only hope for. For example, An American diner finds his food not to his liking so he sends it back: no problem. an English person doesn’t complain when the waiter asks how everything is. But as soon as the waiter disappears, the English moan to each other about the bad food or poor service. They don’t want to cause a fuss. The pragmatic American solves the problem. The polite Briton doesn’t.
Irony is wordplay. It’s the opposite of pragmatic earnestness. Irony is saying what you don’t mean, usually for comedic effect. In person, it’s delivered deadpan to a British audience. By contrast, Americans need signals to show that what’s being said shouldn’t be taken at face value.
In 1979, I arrived in the United States with a constraining sense of politeness. The environment I came from was deeply ironic and at times verbally, rather than physically, cruel. I grew up in establishment Berkshire and Oxfordshire in the 1950s and 1960s. Better not make a fuss. However, my first three years of living in Manhattan cured me of my politeness affliction because New York, at that time, wasn’t known for its gentility. Today, although cured of my automatic politeness, I try to be courteous and thoughtful, but I don’t have to be civil when the situation doesn’t call for it.
I wasn’t aware of this American pragmatism when I arrived in the US. I was always looking for the subtext of what was being said. Often there wasn’t one. I thought Americans did get irony. I’d seen Woody Allen movies. I thought Woody Allen was a typical American film director. Allen is a master of the ironic: “Confidence is what you have before you understand the problem.” “My one regret in life is that I’m not someone else.”
Google Adsense didn’t get irony, either. When I started slowdownnow.org, I added advertising, but the AI algorithm flagged slowing down and relaxing as pathologies to be fixed. When the ads showed up for antidepressants I was horrified. Google Adsense made no sense in an ironic world. My goal is to amuse my readers: and comment on what I saw as extreme busyness which I call rushaholism. That was a long time ago when I thought I might make enough money for The International Institute of Not Doing Much least to pay for itself. No such luck, in economic terms, it’s a liability instead of an asset.
Thank you, readers, of the International Institute of Not Doing Much. You are from all over the world including the USA, and you do get irony.
And there is even a (little used) punctuation mark to indicate irony ⸮