I was asked by an online interviewer to explain Australian humour to her American audience. Here's my response. Find the Mythical Books article here.
When people from around the world think of Australia, they typically think of magnificent beaches, warm weather, broad accents, venomous spiders and snakes, the Great Barrier Reef, the Sydney Opera House and, if they’re up to speed with current international politics, an embarrassing Prime Minister at the helm of a depressingly right wing government.
Australia has all of these things, it’s true. But none of them capture the unique cultural essence that, in my view, is Australia’s greatest charm. To understand Australia’s real character, you have to understand the distinctive use of language and humour – and that was what I tried to showcase in Striking Out.
Australians are the masters of understatement. A disastrous night out – a relationship break-up, followed by a trip to the emergency ward with food poisoning, and a long walk home in the pouring rain, for instance – might be later discussed like this:
‘How was your night out, mate?’
‘Oh. It was a bit ordinary.’ A raise of the eyebrows and a knowing nod would convey the rest.
And the thing is, Australians would get the subtext and laugh. Australians use humour and understatement to deal with misery.
Australians also employ irony as part of their distinctive interactional style:
You can assume in this example that the person asking the question already knows how the story ended and is just trying to open the door to a conversation about it.
‘How was your night out, mate?’
Your average Australian might reply. ‘Couldn’t have been better.’
Which means, of course, that it couldn’t have been worse.
Again, everyone would laugh and then – once the laughter had cleared the air and relieved the awkwardness around the issue – a more meaningful conversation would follow.
If you’ve ever been to Australia, you’ll know that Australians swear quite a lot. In all but the most conservative Australian circles, that’s not considered particularly offensive. It’s a way of introducing colour and drama to a conversation. Sexual humour is very much the same. Australians like to stretch social boundaries. On the surface, this might appear vulgar, but it actually has pro-social dimensions. It’s a way of reducing the tension around things that people don’t feel they can say.
Here’s an example of what I mean, taken from my novel, Striking Out. My heroine, Shazza, gets a phone call from a new friend, Jillian. The “elephant in the room” between them is that Jillian’s partner, Des, has been making a play for Shazza. (By the way, Shazza’s name itself is representative of Australian humour. Sharon gets stuck with ‘Shazza’, whether she likes it or not. The country is full of ‘Barry’s’ who’ve spent their lives being called Bazza. Warren becomes Wazza. Australian nicknames are often ridiculous and they’re used to discourage people from taking themselves too seriously.) Here’s how Shazza deals with the Des issue in my story, letting Jillian know that she’s no threat. Jillian, by the way, has been having a very public affair with a guitarist.
“I was woken by an incessant ringing soon after nine the next morning, having only fallen asleep some time after four. I felt tired and flat and murderously grumpy.
‘What?’ I shouted into the phone.
I heard a girly giggle. ‘Who’s in a bad mood, then?’ Jillian said. ‘Desperate for a shag, are we?’
I groaned. ‘That’s your bag, Jillian. All I want is a good night’s sleep.’
‘That’s where the shag comes in,’ she said. ‘It’s relaxing.’
‘That depends on who you shag. And since I know you’ve had a baby with Des, that’s really too much information. You’re making me feel sick.’
She giggled. ‘I could tell you some very interesting things about sex with Des.’
‘That’s what I mean,’ I sat up in bed and propped my pillows behind me. ‘Not on an empty stomach.’”
Shazza has used humour to convey her lack of interest in Des. And they’ve both used sexual humour to overcome the social awkwardness inherent in their situation.
There are hidden nuances in the way Australians use humour and bad language, and it’s this subtlety that captures Australia’s real charm. If you happen to like great beaches and warm weather as well, all the better. Why don’t you sample Australia (and Australian stories) for yourself? You’ll be in for an interesting ride and they just might win your heart.