The English are not usually given to patriotic boasting - indeed, both patriotism and boasting are regarded as unseemly, so the combination of these two sins is doubly distasteful. But there is one significant exception to this rule, and that is the patriotic pride we take in our sense of humour, particularly in our expert use of irony.
The popular belief is that we have a better, more subtle, more highly developed sense of humour than any other nation, and specifically that other nations are all tediously literal in their thinking and incapable of understanding or appreciating irony. Almost all of the English people I interviewed subscribed to this belief, and many foreigners, rather surprisingly, humbly concurred.
Although we seem to have persuaded ourselves and a great many others of our superior sense of irony, I remain, as I have already indicated, not entirely convinced. Humour is universal; irony is a universally important ingredient of humour: no single culture can possibly claim a monopoly on it. My research suggests that, yet again, the irony issue is a question of degree - a matter of quantity rather than quality. What is unique about English humour is the pervasiveness of irony and the importance we attach to it. Irony is the dominant ingredient in English humour, not just a piquant flavouring. Irony rules. The English, according to an acute observer of the minutiae of Englishness, are 'conceived in irony.
It must be said that many of my foreign informants found this aspect of Englishness frustrating, rather than amusing: 'The problem with the English,' complained one American visitor, 'is that you never know when they are joking - you never know whether they are being serious or not'. This was a businessman, travelling with a female colleague from Holland. She considered the issue frowningly for a moment, and then concluded, somewhat tentatively, 'I think they are mostly joking, yes?'
She had a point. And I felt rather sorry for both of them. I found in my interviews with foreign visitors that the English predilection for irony posed more of a problem for those here on business than for tourists and other pleasure-seekers. J. B. Priestley observed that: 'The atmosphere in which we English live is favourable to humour. It is so often hazy, and very rarely is everything clear-cut'. And he puts 'a feeling for irony' at the top of his list of ingredients of English humour. Our humour-friendly atmosphere is all very well if you are here on holiday, but when you are negotiating deals worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, like my hapless informants quoted above,this hazy, irony-soaked cultural climate can clearly be something of a hindrance.
For those attempting to acclimatize to this atmosphere, the most important 'rule' to remember is that irony is endemic: like humour in general, irony is a constant, a given, a normal element of ordinary, everyday conversation. The English may not always be joking, but they are always in a state of readiness for humour. We do not always say the opposite of what we mean, but we are always alert to the possibility of irony. When we ask someone a straightforward question (e.g. 'How are the children?'), we are equally prepared for either a straightforward response ('Fine, thanks.') or an ironic one ('Oh, they're delightful - charming, helpful, tidy, studious . . .' To which the reply is 'Oh dear. Been one of those days, has it?').