Why being funny is the highest British value

Last summer I spent 2 weeks in the UK, after probably my longest time ever out of it. This time I brought Hao – despite living in Europe for 4 years it was his first time in Britain so I got to also view the country through the alien perspective:

“The cars are more colourful than Dutch cars”, “People love to dye their hair here”, “How can all this [tesco / home bargains] be so cheap?” and “so much obesity here!”

But what stood out most was just how much the British love to drink. On our last night we took a trip up the the Shard, where for £25 you essentially get access to a lowkey nightclub and instagram studio 300m above London Bridge tube station. A DJ plays plays dance hits while well dressed young couples sip cocktails, photographing each other by the window. The most comparable experience to this I’ve had is the Eiffel tower, yet there you stand in silence gazing over the Champs-Élysées while a french lady waits inside for you to browse her little cafe and gift-shop.

One nightshift in Aberdeen circa 2015 my Portuguese colleague who recently moved to Scotland asked me: “Why do you guys love to get drunk? In Portugal we have 2 or 3 beers with our friends and go home, we’re not looking to feel drunk. Why is it like a competition here?”

I don’t really know the answer to his question but he does have a point. There was nothing more bizarre than freshers week at university, where I knew just as much as anyone else there that the only way to make friends and not be a social outcast was to repeatedly drown your consciousness in alcohol and pay £10 to get into an overcrowded club for 5 or 6 nights in a row. This initiation is the commoners version of the Bullingdon club. Where you declare: I’m English and I like to get shit-faced – I’m showing you that I’m not boring or a loser or god-forbid foreign – and based on that you can definitely trust me and have fun with me.

You’re doing *the thing* – you’re having *the* fun – what society has coveted most high. And of course it *is* actually fun. Its fun to let go with alcohol and listen to nice music with friends. But while a young Spanish man might go out and drink with friends for the simple pleasure of going out and drinking with friends, in English culture there is something else going on.

We participate in a process where we drop the difficult, unwritten and ever-shifting social rules of English culture and show ourselves to be good people underneath our awkward masks. Anyone who stayed at home is worthy of suspicion and sadly stuck in the too-limited, 1 dimensional tea drinking sober world above.

Put simply: in the felt hierarchy of values – Dutch society doesn’t care about getting drunk the way English society does. 

Why do we care about getting drunk? I think there is a sort of utilitarian and rational reason behind it… we value social skills so highly and getting drunk is an honest and vulnerable way of getting closer to each other. Just like a horse or a dog lies on its back in front of you to show its trust, we saturate our brains in alcohol to take our complex web of social conventions off the table for a few hours.

The complexity of this web of social rules also means there can be essentially no upper limit to how skilled you should get at banter, talking and joking. Alcohol accelerates this.

I remember a quote from a Channel 4 executive from northern England, who said that once you get to a certain management level in London the rules change; If you can skilfully take the piss out of your colleagues the rational arguments of right and wrong become irrelevant. He put it like this:

“It’s good to be right, it’s better to be funny.”

I think the British feel deeply that how funny you are is more important than anything else.

‘its better to be funny’ because it skilfully signals that you’re a few steps ahead of the rest of the room and in a world as chaotic, relative and confusing as ours, simply being ‘right’ won’t cut it.

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