Irony

I admire American no-nonsense-get-things-done forthright attitude. Americans can complain in ways that an Englishman of my upbringing can only applaud. For example, an American diner finds his food not to his liking so he sends it back: no problem.

The English want to avoid “embarrassment.”They don’t complain about their under or overcooked meal. But as soon as the waiter’s back is turned, they moan to each other about the poor service and bad food. No wonder customer service suffers. Complaints can ignite action. Moaning is just a misery-loves-company event, so no improvement there.

The British don’t want to cause a fuss. And this is the device for much of British farce. Basil Fawlty of Fawlty Towers can never express his discontent directly. He goes to complex lengths to avoid embarrassment and fails every time. But sometimes a fuss is exactly what’s needed. The practical American solves the restaurant problem: the polite Briton stiffens the upper lip and suffers in silence.

Irony is the opposite of earnestness by saying what you don’t mean, usually for comedic effect, sometimes for sarcasm. The British prefer irony deadpan. The United States is a low-context culture where context can’t be assumed, so some signals are needed to say, humor ahead. Fortunately, for writers, there is even a (little-known) punctuation mark to indicate irony, the mirror-image question mark.

There’s a snooty rumor that Americans don’t get irony. I wasn’t ready for American straightforwardness when I arrived in the US as a young adult. Americans tend to say what they mean and mean what they say. I looked for the subtext. Often there wasn’t one. But I thought Americans did understand 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.”

Of course, there are differences. Not all 330 million Americans are alike. Some take everything at face value. It’s true that a few don’t get irony. It’s difficult to use in business as I found out from experience. Businesspeople want unambiguous clarity of message.

Google Adsense didn’t get irony, either.

When I started slowdownnow.org, I added advertising to the website, but the AI algorithm flagged the International Institute of Not Doing Much’s motto of “Do less, slowly,” as a pathology to be fixed. When the ads showed up for antidepressants I was horrified. I beat a tactical withdrawal from Adsense. I wanted to amuse my readers and comment on what I call rushaholism. Initially, I hoped I might make enough money from the Institute to pay for itself. No such luck, in economic terms, slowdownnow.org is a liability instead of an asset.

To the readers of the International Institute of Not Doing Much, thank you. You are from all over the world, including the USA, and you do get irony. Well done. I hope you’ve had some relief from seriousness and from constant anxiety-provoking media misery. If I haven’t made you laugh, perhaps I’ve helped you giggle a little.