I was reminded at a law dinner for my college last Saturday night of a lesson my Cambridge summer tutor shared with me. It goes a little something like this:
The English care most about being witty; Americans care most about being sincere.
When the English are witty, Americans think they are being insincere. When Americans are sincere, the English think they are boring.
This generally makes for very entertaining speeches (or none at all) in Parliament, evening events, and even tete-et-tetes with friends. However, when one is not witty, the tedium is almost morally offensive to Brits.
I witnessed this last Saturday. Three of the four speeches (you would rarely find its equal in the U.S. - dinner speeches usually involve one person speaking for 20 minutes, rather than four for five) at this black tie affair were very witty and engaging. A fourth was not. My very British senior dinner companions were either falling asleep, casting furtive glances at each other to demonstrate the offense the speaker was giving, or downright mocking the speaker. Poor woman.
I have also learned, however, that the English are most sincere when they are witty, and often convey several things all at once with their humor. With their double dose of shame and guilt culture, the only way to be honest is to 'cloak' one's critique in an acceptable joke, which allows the hearer who has been jostled to recover without shame, allows the speaker to not taste of guilt, and gives all a hearty laugh.