Thursday, 15 October 2009

lost in translation, once again




Although I’ve been married to an English man more than sixteen years now, some aspects of the culture are still as clear as mud to me. A certain kind of humor (or “humour”), for example.

Last weekend we attended the second wedding of a dear friend, and my husband was asked to “speak” on behalf of the bride. It was a very intimate wedding – thirty people, give or take a few, and all of them family or very close friends. Both the bride and groom had difficult first marriages; there’s an example of English understatement for you. Let’s just say that the couple are bringing five children, two volatile ex-spouses, four weary parents and an awful lot of emotional baggage into this new relationship. Nearly everyone in attendance had been to either the bride's or the groom's first marriage.

It was our first “second” marriage, and the tone was less giddy expectation and more sober hopefulness – not to imply that the wedding was a teetotal affair. To the contrary, like marriage itself, it required no small measure of endurance. The bride’s first marriage had been in June, and it seemed like everyone was starting out with their adult lives; this one took place on a rather muted October day, which better suited our middle-aged selves.

We were, in many ways, a gathering of marriage veterans from the same company: all of us scarred to some extent, and most of us aware of the more bruising skirmishes of our fellows. So within this context, I begged my husband to keep his speech short, sweet and sincere. Although inappropriate humor is a typical element of these speeches, off-color jokes are such uncertain missiles. With so many raw nerves, I didn’t think it appropriate to risk hitting any.

Anyone who has seen Four Weddings and a Funeral will be aware of the apparently obligatory mortifications of the best man’s speech. It is more roast than toast, really. In the guise of celebrating the new bride and groom, the best man feels it is his duty to single-handedly lower the tone. The speech is not considered to be a success unless all of the members of the wedding party have been insulted and/or embarrassed in some way. I’ve never really understood this tradition, but perhaps it has something to do with the English fear of being earnest. Any possible flowering of emotion and sincerity really must be squashed.

Although the groom’s speech went a little close to the bone, and I doubt that the new husband of the matron-in-law was very happy about it, he was forgiven a certain amount of plain-speaking. Most people put it down to the fact that he is from Yorkshire. (Jokes about the difference between Northerners and Southerners? Also obligatory.) My husband was up next, and I’m happy to see that his words managed to be gently funny (and true) without actually being hurtful. But then came the best man’s speech . . . and oh my goodness. We talked about it all night, and I’m sure we will talk about it for years to come. I guess, from that point-of-view, it was a kind of success. It was also the most cringe-making speech that I’ve ever heard, with no taboo subject left uncovered. You know, rather vicious cracks about ex-wives really don’t go down that well when their teenage children are there to bear witness. The groom later told us that the best man had rejected a joke that went along these lines: The groom’s first wife (insert real name) was very temperamental. 50% temper and 50% mental. Truly, that would have been preferable to most of what he did include. No one laughed much; of course that was an embarrassment, too.

Not long ago, Dick was speculating about the nature of English humour over at his Patteran Pages.  (I wonder if he could explain the best man's speech?) Dick listed several examples of jokes which really tickle him – and although I could kind of see that they were funny, none of them made me laugh. Not properly laugh, anyway. I was reminded, instead, of the occasion several years ago when we attended a Christmas Pantomime with my parents and my mother-in-law. The panto style of humor is rigorously formulaic: either sexual double-entendre or slapstick silliness. My English husband and his mother howled with laughter throughout the performance, while my parents and I were left stony-faced and slightly embarrassed.

Sometimes, there really is no translation.





Hopefully not lost in translation:  I'm not really a shoe person, but I happily submitted to the "shoe quiz" administered by Dan, from The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes.  Dan's blog highlights the best of creative Twitter -- but he made an exception for me, as I'm not a Twitterer, either.  You can hear Dan read from his work at The Albion Beatnik Bookshop in Oxford at 6 pm on October 29. 

47 comments:

ArtSparker said...

I'm glad your husband diluted the awfulness of the other speeches...Strange ritual, like an initiation ceremony in which the participants have to show they can stand up to pain.

CashmereLibrarian said...

What about Benny Hill or Monty Python; where do these fall? It seems that American audiences found them funny, but maybe that's because we only saw the skits that translate?

rachel said...

Yes, it's a very strange, very male tradition in this country, but there are so many of us who really hate it, can't see the funny side, but are too 'polite' to say so. Your example sounds particularly insensitive and crass; thank goodness for your husband, sez I!

rxBambi said...

Ok I loved the temperamental joke! But I agree, not cool in front of the kids. It's a tough line to walk... I'm glad your husband handled it nicely. I think mine would have done a good job as well, but there are plenty that would cross the line, possibly without even knowing (or caring...)

Susan said...

Oh this hit a nerve. I am more than familiar with this particular type of cruelty. I hate it. Nothing Monty P. about it. (And yes, I do have a wicked sense of humor at times...but I know when to zip it & merely amuse myself.) It is a kind of incivility, I really think so. If you've not read it, a lovely Italian professor Forni (here in US) wrote a slim volume Choosing Civility. I just reread to keep myself in check for leading meetings of a contentious nature this autumn & winter. What you wrote about is the sort of "tradition" which Forni would definitely call uncivil & I agree with him.

Oh, to be clear...I'm American with Anglo-Welsh family. (Here & there.) To be fair, many of them can't stand the juvenile behavior either.

Good post.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

It's just awful to be a witness to that type of scene. Squirmy kind of awful.

My mother-in-law was retiring from her post as financial secretary at a local church. It was sort of an emotional affair for her, and my husband and I...we were very newly married...thought it would be a good idea (?) to hire a singing telegram to show up on her last day and lighten the mood. We told the fellow that his audience would be fairly elderly, and seriously straight-laced, so he certainly needed to keep it clean. He nodded soberly and proceeded to perform the most off-colour routine imaginable, with everyone there from the pastor on down. I still redden at the thought.

willow said...

I usually find British humor very funny. And the 50/50 joke made me laugh! But I agree, it is a strange tradition, those wedding speeches.

Sarah Laurence said...

It's good to hear that 2 people, who understand each other, found each other and get a second chance at happiness. I loved 4 Weddings and a Funeral - it totally captured the culture clash and humor/humour. I have the same reaction to Panto's although it was fun seeing my brother in law play the dame in one. Ritualized humiliation?

I love your autumn leaves photo. It shows that you are getting out there on sunny days despite all that is on your plate.

dancing doc said...

Bee,
i love your writing, your turn of phrase and i agree even though there is a common language(sort of) that there are the cultural differences-- wild and rather funny!! at least this is what i find with my English friends in France---have a great evening !

Beth said...

Ouch. That speech would have been painful to hear – for many.
As for English humour, I know whereof you speak. I have a friend in England whose humour goes right over (or under) my head. On the other hand, sometimes his (mine? our?) out-of-sync humour makes for some great laughs!

Elizabeth said...

This is a wonderful, very thoughtful and though-provoking post.
Yes, the best man's speeches are almost always awful.
And cringe-making.
When people say 'just joking' --they aren't really joking -- it's just an excuse to be honest and often cruel.
The English are awfully good at 'squishing' people which is one of the reasons that I live in the US.
pulling you down a peg or two
not being entirely honest

The whole wedding sounds rather trauma -inducing to me.
ouch!

ps pantos are a bit 'common'
a time to allow the straight-laced a little levity

how COULD my parents laugh at that sort of thing. shock horror

maybe I'm glad to be here where people are allowed to be sincere and even a little hokey and earnest........!

Elizabeth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Star said...

I think that the more squirmy, the better. Our humour is something to be proud of and people all around the world pay for it, don't they. If you go round treading on eggshells you will hurt someone even though you are trying not to, so why not have it all out in the open and risk the consequences.
Blessings, Star

spudballoo said...

Oh gosh, I'm blushing for everyone. It sounds appalling, lucky MrBee rose to the occasion. I hate best men's speeches. To the extent that my first husband (June wedding) didn't let his best man make a speech, although to be fair he didn't want to and my second husband (November wedding, interesting) had a 5 year old as his best man! MrSpud didn't want to make a speech, and the 5 year old went home to bed. My Dad raised a toast, and then MrSpud (fuelled by wine) made the most loving, impromptu speech EVER. I adored it, we all adored it, I cried, we all cried. And on one was shamed. WINNER!

x

PS I O U mail x

steven said...

hello bee - the second blogdoor i've knocked on in my week and a bit away from blogs . . . a very cool and insightful post that really opened my eyes to the strange state of weddings. have a lovely evening. steven

Isabelle said...

Well, I'm certainly cringing. Mind you, I'm Scottish. But I really don't think most English people would think that appropriate either.

Kristen In London said...

I always think of my favorite quote for second weddings: once read in a mystery novel by Janet Laurence and never forgotten. The second husband, the groom, says, "We are told that a second wedding is a triumph of hope over experience. Well, my new wife gives me hope, and I offer her all my experience."

To the point, yet a bit sweet!

Your story is beautifully told, Bee.

Kerstin said...

I've never been into the Monty Python or Benny Hill kind of humor; maybe I am too German for that! But having lived in England for 15 years I always loved the Brit's very dry sense of humor that could laugh at itself. There is something about the stiff upper lip self depreciation that I find very charming and disarming. And yes, funny, too. I have attended probably 15 British weddings while I lived there and luckily none of them went down the slippery slope of embarrassment you describe here. Nonetheless, I love and miss the Brits! Take care, Kerstin

Best Man Speeches said...

To give a successful Best Man speech you need to ensure that you mix sincerity with humor. Humor should be inoffensive with crude language omitted. Subtle humor works well as do innocent funny stories.

Nimble said...

This reminds me of the Easter during college that I spent with you at your parents' house. I chose 'Eating Raoul' as a video rental and clearly remember the burn of shame on the back of my neck as your parents wandered in and out of the viewing. I hadn't taken the mixed audience into account. It sure wasn't very Easter-y.

So -- sorry for that and I'm sorry everyone had to sit through the Best Man's speech. I think it would have been admirable if someone had created a diversion.

rebecca said...

I enjoyed reading this post so much. Midway through I was thinking how very Four Weddings and a Funeral it sounded. The English sense of humor is so full of wit, sexual innuendo, sarcasm, and double entrendres and that's what makes it so funny and so good (altho I believe, from what you wrote, that the best man's speech was a tad bit rouge, er..rude?)Shakespeare's comedies are filled with it. Even his tragedies are funny...King Henry V when the Dauphin presents the King with a gift of balls (and the meaning behind that) to which, my favorite line, then follows: "We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us.." Love it! I digress... anyway, my father was English therefore I was born with loving all things English in my blood. Many family members have been to England but I have not yet taken that trip. A little thing that resembles a great big expanse of water seems to be the problem. I think if I should ever visit England I would never return to the States again. Ever. Plus, that would mean that I would have to be heavily medicated again to make the trip back home.

And, I love your cottage (how very English-looking!) What a gorgeous, gorgeous home you have. You see? That is why I would never, ever return.

Anne said...

Yikes! Sounds like one of those scenes I feel the urge to watch with my eyes averted. Thank goodness for the more tasteful speech your husband gave! That said, I do like British humor, even if sometimes it doesn't always translate.

Fantastic Forrest said...

I'm not sure that the English have a monopoly on crude humour - I've heard of some pretty dreadful stuff at American weddings (as you know now, I grew up in the biz), but I totally agree that panto is a non-American thing. We went to one in Ireland and just looked at each other like WTH?!

Second weddings - I haven't been to one where both parties were getting remarried, but my mom just told me about one in her church where the couple had been married previously to each other, then divorced and each married other people who eventually died. They rekindled their romance. Love is a funny thing, don't you think?

Love Four Weddings for the eulogy - so sad!

The Patteran Pages and Shoes links were delightful. I am very jealous Dan got to hang out with you.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Bee - I'm a late arrival to this autopsy on the deeper obscurities of British humour.

Having been invoked in your post, I wish I could clarify for you the apparent requirement for the best man's speech to be a farrago of scatology, sexual humiliation, cruel mockery and neanderthal music hall humour. But I've always hated the convention and tend to gauge the success of a wedding-as-ritual by the absence of any speeches of any sort.

So I'm with you entirely on this one. Let's hope that a keen Benny Hill/Jim Davidson/Bernard Manning fan tunes in and can make all clear!

Dick said...

Whoops - 'Anonymous', c'est moi!

Barrie said...

We have the speeches' tradition in Canada, as well. Although I think they've undergone a North-American muting. If that makes sense.

Fantastic Forrest said...

Seriously, I think you're giving the good people of our native US too much credit. You've just been exposed to a kinder, gentler wedding reception than many. Let us not forget the abhorrent practice of some brides and grooms, shoving the cake into each other's faces, grinding the frosting into each pore. Blech!

Jan said...

SO TRUE, all you say about differences in humour!
I wish I'd been a very still and silent and big-eared fly on the wall at that wedding!!

SmitoniusAndSonata said...

Weddings have all the potential for disaster ! I'm always pleasantly surprised by how well most of them go ! And , if not , there's always a glass of indigestion-inducing champagne or two .

A Cuban In London said...

Excellent post. Britih humour is probably one of the reasons why I have fit into this country so well. I love it to bits. But, yes, I can certainly understand your predicament when weddings are the settings for these 'words battles'. Wedding receptions sometimes turn into a combination of 'Have I Got News For You' and 'Never Mind the Buzzcocks'. Good to read that your husband's speech went down well.

Greetings from London.

Reya Mellicker said...

Oh my. Yes, British humor - I do NOT get it at all.

At witch camp we always had a talent show that always included several campers doing monologues. Apparently they were quite funny since all the campers would be rolling on the floor laughing. I just sat there wondering, "Why is this funny?" all night long.

kristina said...

when I read your description, I'm very happy I wasn't there for the best man speech - sounds excruciating!

Yvonne Anderson said...

I enjoyed reading this post! Yikes what a day that would have been for some :)

Lucy said...

That really sounds excruciating and atrocious, and not, frankly, part of any tradition I'd want to be associated with.

Now the puns on the other hand...
:~)

Alyson (New England Living) said...

I, like you, get very embarrased at these sorts of things. Reminds me of "Borat". (Don't think it's a coincidence that Cohen is British) I still have not seen that movie. I can't bear to see people embarrased. I squirm and fret. Can not bear it.

mouse (aka kimy) said...

thanks for sharing this peek inside wedding customs of the english...

good move avoiding the temperamental joke!

findingmywingsinlife said...

You have some very interesting and thought provoking posts on here Bee. I will definitely have to come back for a few more visits when I can :)

Bee said...

Thanks for all of the great input here -- not to mention the sharing of memories (good and bad). Nimble - I have forgotten all about that film. So don't sweat it.

I should have clarified, really: I'm not against English humour, just this particular species of it. PLEASE do not mention prostitutes in front of the bride's elderly parents, okay? A person shouldn't have to suffer through shivers of excruciating horror at a wedding. Also, no one needs to know about the matron of honor's sexual past either. Squirmy humour is fine for late-night Saturday TV or comedy clubs . . . but surely a wedding needs a more refined tone?

One of the jokes about the ex-wife that DID make it through: Why don't you just marry someone you don't like and then give her a house? Sheesh.

Merisi said...

That was what I would call a hold-your-breath wedding ceremony! ;-)

I wouldn't be able to understand why ex-partners have to be mentioned one way or the other. I pity the children!

Kelly H-Y said...

So fascinating. Glad your hubby's speech was a good one! :-)

Nancy said...

My husband loves English humor - but it leaves me rather cold, as well. I wonder why some of us "get it" and some of us don't? As for the references to ex-spouses - well...?

Loved your picture of the reflection in the mud puddle!

Dumdad said...

Great post.

The British sense of humour is a bit peculiar, I suppose. I love it obviously (duh) as I'm British. Some Brits like to boast that the British have the best sense of humour in the world - and those who expound on this subject tend not to be amusing at all. And they're wrong: it's just a different sense of humour.

My wife is French and, phew, she enjoys British comedy (Fawlty Towers, Only Fools and Horses, The Office etc) but hates Benny Hill although many French people adore him.

And it's a language thing as well, of course. If you don't speak French you won't get what they're laughing at. I love American humour as well especially shows like Seinfeld, Cheers, Friends etc and comedians like Robin Williams, who at his best is a genius.

Delwyn said...

Hi Bee

I found this discussion interesting as an Australian -previously a New Zealander with English Scottish roots.
We have to same offensive wedding etiquette here - cringeworthy as you say, but as for the humour - that has to be a cultural sensitivity because at the risk of offending you, we have NEVER found American humour funny - we watch American movies and TV series like Seinfeld, for example and wonder how you can find humour in shouting and denigration...

So I guess humour is specific and relative to the culture of the viewer...
Heavens the Americans can't even spell it correctly!
Happy days

Bee said...

Dumdad - I LOVED The Office and also The Royle Family; like Monty Python stuff, haven't ever seen Only Fools and Horses. Can't bear Benny Hill, who my brother loved.

I do think that Brits are probably the funniest, if we are giving out awards, but sometimes they just don't know when to stop!

Delwyn - I will happily concede that American humour* is not always funny, either.
Again, the Brits DO make me laugh; but I don't think weddings should be comic blood-sport.

♥ Braja said...

I understand the cringing feeling, the stoney silence, the embarrassment.....phew.....

♥ Braja said...

sounds exactly like my cat :)

iNdi@ said...

ze English joke, ze German silence.
the Goon Show, that quintessential bastion of British Humour
summed it beautifully
and who was it said 'Britain and America are two countries divided by a common language'...?