The U.S. has never taken itself so seriously and appears ready to snap. If only it could banter.
Sir Henry William Paget (1768-1854), 1st Marquess of Anglesey, 2nd Earl of Uxbridge, by Jan Willem Pieneman. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Banter is as British as the queen, and as necessary and noble. Judging by the current climate in the U.S., you lot would do better with more of both. Setting monarchy aside, though, let me focus on the less understood phenomenon of banter.
Banter is not the same as having a sense of humor, though you can’t do the former without the latter. Banter is a specific direct interaction between two or more people—a balletic interchange of teasing and ribbing that generates camaraderie and goodwill. It basically boils down to being able to take a good joke at your expense. It was the backbone of morale when I was in the British army, as it always has been.
During the Battle of Waterloo, the Earl of Uxbridge was riding next to the British commander, the Duke of Wellington, as cannon shot hurtled everywhere. After being hit, Uxbridge turned to Wellington to say:
“By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg.”
“By God, sir, so you have,” Wellington replied. Uxbridge did indeed later have his leg amputated.
That’s banter, if even more stoic than usual. The relentlessly inclement British weather goes some way to explaining it; a bit of witty “bants,” as it’s often referred to, is how Brits can cheer themselves up in the gray. It often involves satire and sarcasm, and can be pretty rude and lewd, but at the same time, it is usually underpinned by respect and mutual affection.
The U.S. has never been great at banter. There was a time when American discourse was relatively buoyant, as demonstrated by the sitcoms of the 1970s and 1980s such as MASH, Cheers, and Taxi. And within minority groups, banter tends to be livelier, ranging from when Irish and Polish immigrants to the U.S. call one another big dumb Polocks or big dumb Micks to the casual use of the N-word in exchanges between African American friends.
Nowadays, though, what passes for banter in the U.S. mostly comes through stand-up comedians and late-night talk show hosts. Both formulations miss the point of banter’s personal element, however, hence it can go disastrously wrong, as when Michelle Wolf “bantered” about abortion at the White House Correspondents Association dinner in 2018.
Lately, the ability to banter in the U.S. has gone off a cliff. That reality hit me during the South by Southwest music festival earlier this year in Austin. A British band of young feisty lads was performing. The lead singer indulged in some banter with the crowd between songs. He poked fun at himself, the venue, and the crowd all at the same time. I lapped it up; he was hilarious in a particularly droll, deadpan, and effortless way. But most of the people around me looked confused.
Things haven’t been helped by the pandemic and the energetic embrace of face masks, the latter of which is holding out more than in the U.K. and other countries. Banter, especially at its most irreverant, envelope-pushing best, can be a risky business. If the other person takes it the wrong way, you could have a fist coming toward your face. More risqué forms of banter rely on those tiny facial cues and expressions—and which all effective face-to-face communications rely on—to make clear that what is going on is banter and is not meant to be insulting.
Perhaps due to those two years of suppression, in the U.K. banter seems to have returned with a vengeance. From social media to WhatsApp groups and on the streets, Brits are bantering vibrantly like never before. In the U.S., though, the damage done to banter by the pandemic seems far more lasting.
If you attempt to banter with Americans these days, I find, especially with anyone under the age of 35, you risk being deemed mentally unstable, high, or a pervert. This inability to banter, in addition to making everyday life more of a slog and drab, has wider implications across society. It’s a part of cancel culture and the menacing ideologies gripping media and academia that police what people can or can’t say. It fuels the anxiety of children and young people, leaving them humorless and taking things far too seriously beyond their years.
The absence of banter is also driving a wedge between the sexes. American males remain more capable of banter than their female peers. The latter appear increasingly stern faced and distressed at everything. In their defence, who can blame them for not being in the mood for a bit of bants, given the depressing narratives they are relentlessly pummelled with by media, activists, et al.—about toxic masculinity, rape culture, and wholesale misogyny pervading society since time began.
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Back in the U.K. there is plenty concern about ideological imports from the U.S. unnecessarily affecting British society’s more debonair and nuanced way of life (there’s a touch of banter there, in case you missed it). If the U.K. could only send back some ideological banter, we might all be better off on both sides of the Atlantic.
Banter cuts through judgements, utilitarian posturing, and bluff. It helps you stay grounded and gain perspective, delivering a person from what Aldous Huxley called “over-valued words and idolatrously worshipped notions.”
So much hysteria pervades American public discourse. You name the topic—abortion, guns, race, LGBTQ—cue a hysterical response often from both left and right, though more likely to enter the realm of plain bonkers from the left. But in moments of great tension, as demonstrated during the Battle of Waterloo, banter diffuses the tendency to hysteria.