The British sense of humour is legendary. A dry, razor-sharp, wit; a slightly wacky, goonish element; a substantial self-deprecatory thread. All woven together to form something unique. But the rest of the world either doesn’t really get it, or admires it, or completely misinterprets it.
Last Sunday, I was watching Top Gear (as one does), and during the news piece, James May introduced a Mexican sports car, which he dubbed the “Tortilla”. They then went on to project the stereotypical characteristics of a Mexican onto the car. Much as they always do with the staid, organised Germans, the perfectionistically soulless Japanese and the overly emotional French. But they really laid in to the Mexicans, with Hammond saying that the car would be like “a lazy, feckless, flatulent oaf with a mustache leaning against a fence asleep looking at a cactus with a blanket with a hole in the middle on as a coat”. They joked about Mexican food being “refried sick with cheese”, and didn’t worry about complaints, because the Mexican ambassador would be snoring on the sofa instead of watching.
Except, of course, he wasn’t asleep, and Mexicans (who are avid fans of Top Gear, apparently, even going to the extent of buying Stig-shaped soap on a rope in large quantities) joined him in creating something of an international furore. From official complaints, lawsuits, and diplomatic impacts to a mass outpouring of outrage, it seems almost everyone outside the UK is really, really upset by this. The BBC apologised to the ambassador about the comments made about him personally, but tellingly, didn’t think it worthwhile making any sort of apology to the Mexican public.
Jeremy Clarkson, in his weekly column (in a paper I only bought because of the free Jamie Oliver DVD that came with it – honest!), offered an apology in such an obviously tongue in cheek way it was almost worse than the original offence. It was titled “I’m truly sorry…that you have no sense of humour”. Here’s the build-up to the apology:
People say that Mexicans are only any good at kidnapping businessmen, cleaning Arnold Schwarzenegger’s swimming pool and growing heroin, but I know this is rubbish. I went there, once, for lunch and it seemed to be very nice. Nobody kidnapped me even slightly, and I seem to recall the waitress was very pretty. And then there’s the legendary Mexican engineering.
Certainly, if I ever need a heart pacemaker and there’s a choice of two models, I will always choose the one made in Mexico over the one made in, say, Switzerland. Likewise, if someone dear to me needs an operation on their heart, I’d rather the surgeon was called Pablo than Wolfgang.
I therefore apologise unreservedly to Mexico and its people. I am truly sorry for being part of a show that called you feckless, lazy and flatulent. You’re not. But let ask you this. Are you, perhaps, a bit humourless?
So there you have it – the English say something derogatory, it gets interpreted as denigratory, and the Brits are left shaking their heads and going “huh?” They just don’t get that other people don’t understand that they’re rude to everyone, including themselves and their best friends, and they mean it all in a funny-ha-ha kind of way. If they’re not insulting you, then you should be worried.
After all, the rest of Europe is used to this by now – the Germans are still stuck with just enough post-war guilt to accept it, and the French throw up their hands in surrender. I guess the Mexicans will just need to get up to speed.