I'm putting this as a sub-heading under irony, because understatement is a form of irony, rather than a distinct and separate type of humour. It is also a very English kind of irony - the understatement rule is a close cousin of the Importance of Not Being Earnest rule, the 'Oh, come off it' rule and the various reserve and modesty rules that govern our everyday social interactions. Understatement is by no means an exclusively English form of humour, of course: again, we are talking about quantity rather than quality. George Mikes said that the understatement 'is not just a speciality of the English sense of humour; it is a way of life'. The English are rightly renowned for their use of understatement, not because we invented it or because we do it better than anyone else, but because we do it so much. (Well, maybe we do do it a little bit better - if only because we get more practice at it.)
The reasons for our prolific understating are not hard to discover: our strict prohibitions on earnestness, gushing, emoting and boasting require almost constant use of understatement. Rather than risk exhibiting any hint of forbidden solemnity, unseemly emotion or excessive zeal, we go to the opposite extreme and feign dry, deadpan indifference. The understatement rule means that a debilitating and painful chronic illness must be described as 'a bit of a nuisance'; a truly horrific experience is 'well, not exactly what I would have chosen'; a sight of breathtaking beauty is 'quite pretty'; an outstanding performance or achievement is 'not bad'; an act of abominable cruelty is 'not very friendly', and an unforgivably stupid misjudgement is 'not very clever'; the Antarctic is 'rather cold' and the Sahara 'a bit too hot for my taste'; and any exceptionally delightful object, person or event, which in other cultures would warrant streams of superlatives, is pretty much covered by 'nice', or, if we wish to express more ardent approval, 'very nice'.
Needless to say, the English understatement is another trait that many foreign visitors find utterly bewildering and infuriating (or, as we English would put it, 'a bit confusing'). 'I don't get it,' said one exasperated informant. 'Is it supposed to be funny? If it's supposed to be funny, why don't they laugh - or at least smile? Or something. How the hell are you supposed to know when "not bad" means "absolutely brilliant" and when it just means "OK"? Is there some secret sign or something that they use? Why can't they just say what they mean?'
This is the problem with English humour. Much of it, including and perhaps especially the understatement, isn't actually very funny - or at least not obviously funny, not laugh-out-loud funny, and definitely not cross- culturally funny. Even the English, who understand it, are not exactly riotously amused by the understatement.
At best, a well-timed, well-turned understatement only raises a slight smirk. But then, this is surely the whole point of the understatement: it is amusing, but only in an understated way. It is humour, but it is a restrained, refined, subtle form of humour.
Even those foreigners who appreciate the English understatement, and find it amusing, still experience considerable difficulties when it comes to using it themselves. My father tells me about some desperately anglophile Italian friends of his, who were determined to be as English as possible - they spoke perfect English, wore English clothes, even developed a taste for English food. But they complained that they couldn't quite 'do' the English understatement, and pressed him for instructions. On one occasion, one of them was describing, heatedly and at some length, a ghastly meal he had had at a local restaurant - the food was inedible, the place was disgustingly filthy, the service rude beyond belief, etc., etc. 'Oh,' said my father, at the end of the tirade, 'So, you wouldn't recommend it, then?' 'YOU SEE?' cried his Italian friend. 'That's it! How do you do that? How do you know to do that? How do you know when to do it?' 'I don't know,' said my father apologetically. 'I can't explain. We just do it. It just comes naturally.'
This is the other problem with the English understatement: it is a rule, but a rule in the fourth OED sense of 'the normal or usual state of things' - we are not conscious of obeying it; it is somehow wired into our brains. We are not taught the use of the understatement, we learn it by osmosis. The understatement 'comes naturally' because it is deeply ingrained in our culture, part of the English psyche.
The understatement is also difficult for foreigners to 'get' because it is, in effect, an in-joke about our own unwritten rules of humour. When we describe, say, a horrendous, traumatic and painful experience as 'not very pleasant', we are acknowledging the taboo on earnestness and the rules of irony, but at the same making fun of our ludicrously rigid obedience to these codes. We are exercising restraint, but in such an exaggerated manner that we are also (quietly) laughing at ourselves for doing so. We are parodying ourselves. Every understatement is a little private joke about Englishness.
The Self-deprecation Rule
Like the English understatement, English self-deprecation can be seen as a form of irony. It usually involves not genuine modesty but saying the opposite of what we really mean - or at least the opposite of what we intend people to understand.
The issue of English modesty will come up again and again in this book, so I should clear up any misunderstandings about it straight away. When I speak of'modesty rules', I mean exactly that - not that the English are somehow naturally more modest and self-effacing than other nations, but that we have strict rules about the appearance of modesty. These include both 'negative' rules, such as prohibitions on boasting and any
form of self-importance, and 'positive' rules, actively prescribing self-deprecation and self-mockery. The very abundance of these unwritten rules suggests that the English are not naturally or instinctively modest: the best that can be said is that we place a high value on modesty, that we aspire to modesty. The modesty that we actually display is generally false - or, to put it more charitably, ironic.
And therein lies the humour. Again, we are not talking about obvious, thigh-slapping funniness: the humour of English self-deprecation, like that of the English understatement, is understated, often to the point of being almost imperceptible - and bordering on incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with English modesty rules.
To show how it works, however, I will take a relatively blatant example. My fiance is a brain surgeon. When we first met, I asked what had led him to choose this profession. 'Well, urn,' he replied, 'I read PPE [Philosophy, Politics and Economics] at Oxford, but I found it all rather beyond me, so, er, I thought I'd better do something a bit less difficult.' I laughed, but then, as he must have expected, protested that surely brain surgery could not really be described as an easy option. This gave him a further opportunity for self-deprecation. 'Oh no, it's nowhere near as clever as it's cracked up to be; to be honest it's actually a bit hit-or-miss. It's just plumbing, really, plumbing with a microscope - except plumbing's rather more accurate.' It later emerged, as he must have known it would, that far from finding the intellectual demands of Oxford 'beyond him', he had entered with a scholarship and graduated with a First. 'I was a dreadful little swot,' he explained.
So was he being truly modest? No, but nor could his humorously self-deprecating responses really be described as deliberate, calculated 'false' modesty. He was simply playing by the rules, dealing with the embarrassment of success and prestige by making a self-denigrating joke out of it all, as is our custom. And this is the point, there was nothing extraordinary or remarkable about his humble self-mockery: he was just being English. We all do this, automatically, all the time. Even those of us with much less impressive achievements or credentials to disguise. I'm lucky - many people don't know what an anthropologist is, and those who do generally regard us as the lowest form of scientific life, so there is very little danger of being thought boastful when I am asked about my work. But just in case I might be suspected of being (or claiming to be) something vaguely brainy, I always quickly explain to those unfamiliar with the term that it is 'just a fancy word for nosey parker', and to academics that what I do is in any case 'only pop-anthropology', not the proper, intrepid, mud- hut variety.
Among ourselves, this system works perfectly well: everyone understands that the customary self- deprecation probably means roughly the opposite of what is said, and is duly impressed, both by one's achievements and by one's reluctance to trumpet them. (Even in my case, when it barely counts as self- deprecation, being all too sadly true, people often wrongly assume that what I do must surely be somewhat less daft than it sounds.) The problems arise when we English attempt to play this game with people from outside our own culture, who do not understand the rules, fail to appreciate the irony, and therefore have an unfortunate tendency to take our self-deprecating statements at face value. We make our customary modest noises, the uninitiated foreigners accept our apparently low estimate of our achievements, and are duly unimpressed. We cannot very well then turn round and say: 'No, hey, wait a minute, you're supposed to give me a sort of knowingly sceptical smile, showing that you realize I'm being humorously self-deprecating, don't believe a word of it and think even more highly of my abilities and my modesty'. They don't know that this is the prescribed English response to prescribed English self-deprecation. They don't know that we are playing a convoluted bluffing game. They inadvertently call our bluff, and the whole thing backfires on us. And frankly, it serves us right for being so silly.