Remember Reagan? Seriosity plus humor

He was called “The great communicator”. At the time I wasn’t willing to listen to any of his speeches, because he was at the opposite end of the political spectrum, and I was out in the streets demonstrating against cruise missiles, Star Wars and all that. But I was just reading Vicki Hollett’s very interesting analysis of the current BP crisis yesterday and have been thinking about her idea that Americans are expected to demonstrate “seriosity“, a lack of which is seen as cynical and subversive. Vicki thinks that seriosity doesn’t play the same role in the UK. I don’t know much about the British take on this, but I do have insight into the American side, and I think the magical formula to demonstrating that you are 100% engaged and really care about an issue in the US must be seriosity plus humor. For me, Reagan telling Russian jokes in 1988, the year before the wall came down, epitomizes what Americans cherish in their public figures. Reagan’s timing was brilliant, he knew the exact moment and situation when humor would seal his commitment.

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Teaching English for business communication skills, writing online for learners, translating, sailing whenever I can, from Washington, D.C.

13 thoughts on “Remember Reagan? Seriosity plus humor”

  1. Anne,

    I agree that Americans put a higher value on humor than at least Germans do in public figures. (I don’t know of any politicians in Germany I think of as funny, and I can’t imagine my German acquaintances voting for someone they thought was funny.)

    I have no idea what I’m talking about here, but that’s never stopped me from talking. I think that being able to discuss an issue seriously–in the U.S.–shows that you take it seriously. Being able to make jokes shows that you don’t take yourself too seriously. (Self-deprecation seems pretty American to me. My German students are shocked when I make jokes about myself.) I imagine that’s why the “get my life back” crack tanked to an American public, it’s all about whats-his-name taking himself too seriously.

    On an unrelated note, you wrote PB crisis in your post where you want BP. I thought there was a new lead crisis until I followed the link.


  2. Dear Toby,
    Good morning! I couldn’t agree more! Excellent point, taking yourself too seriously doesn’t work at all in the States, and I, too, look at German politicians in total disbelief.
    What do you think about irony? I’m wondering whether we think that a person who is ironic is putting himself above us and above the situation, whereas a person who uses self-deprecation is making sure he is not above us.
    Thanks a lot for the correction! No, we’ve got quite enough crises as it is, thank you 😉
    Have a nice day!

  3. Oh great stuff Anne and many, many thanks for the link!

    And good point Toby.

    I think many Brits were astonished when Reagan was elected because he was a movie actor – how could that qualify someone for running a country, we thought. And if you’ve spent your life pretending that you’re someone you’re not, wouldn’t that make you potentially untrustworthy?

    I wonder if he was a popular President with some simply because he came across as warm, avuncular and likeable – had a high Q point score. And I’m sure you’re right that humour would play a large role in that.

  4. Good morning Vicki!
    Exactly, Reagan being an actor, and thinking about perceived sincerity made me pull this out.

    In German “seriös” is often used in the negative, as “unseriös”, meaning something that you simply can’t take seriously, because it’s not done in ernest, it’s not professional enough to meet the standards. So someone who is not qualified for the job would be considered “unseriös”. To Americans, Reagan’s avuncular (what a lovely word that is) sincerity (and he was sincere, no doubt about it!) qualified him as a leader, no matter what your politics were.

    Sincerity is essential, but not quite enough. I had a think about different leadership styles based on an excellent article by Nancy Gibbs in TIME Magazine after the last elections contrasting McCain and Obama, and blogged about it here I remember a lot of debates zoned in on whether Obama would make it, as he was perceived to be lacking humor. He’s not looking too good as a crisis manager in the media at the moment, is he?

  5. Anne. . .

    I’m not sure what irony signals to me. I think I can get behind the fact that it signals an aloofness. But, depending on. . . SOMETHING, it can make a connection (“The both of us are above whatever nonsense it is we’re going through”) or it can be arrogant (“I’m above whatever nonsense it is you’re doing”). The key, I think, is which of the two you’re actually thinking when you use irony, and if you’re able to communicate it.

    Because I seem incapable of posting a comment today without ending with an unrelated aside, let me say this: Thanks for having my blog in your list of links, but it’s officially been designated as a ‘dropped project.’ It’ll stay there until the hosting contract is up, but then it’s gone.

    How do you interpret irony?

  6. Yes, fraid Obama’s not faring too well in the likability stakes here, Anne, in the press, at least.

    I think Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron can all sound suitably serious when the occasion demands it. Blair used to have a higher likability factor than Brown. Not sure what Cameron’s likability factor is. Doubt if it’s as high as Blair’s was in his hey day, but hard to imagine it could be worse than Brown’s! But I think there’s a difference between being serious and doing seriosity.

    A lot of it’s to do with the contexts in which Brits and Americans think they should be serious. If I start cracking jokes at the start of a meeting when folks are swearing allegiance to the flag here, I’d imagine eyebrows would be raised. Or if I joked about having half a pound of some illegal drug in my bag when I came into the country, it wouldn’t go down at all well. And I can see it sounds silly, irreverent, or even rude, but I think Brits are more inclined to do things like that, provided it’s a good joke, of course.

    Bill Bryson told a story of a return to the US after he’d been living in the UK for many years. I can’t remember it exactly, but as I recall the agriculture police guy asked ‘Any fruit or vegetables, sir?’ and he quipped back something like ‘OK, I’ll have half a pound of carrots and a couple of pounds of potatoes.’ The guy didn’t (or acted like he didn’t) get the joke. I think both Brits and Americans would find Bryson’s joke funny, but Brits would be more surprised by the dead pan respoinse.

    I think there’s an expectation on the part of Brits that nobody should take themselves too seriously and that you should feel quite at liberty to make fun of other people if they do. I gather Bill Bryson goes down better in the UK than here, and perhaps that’s why. It could be part of the reason why British TV interviewers show less reverence for their interviewees too.

    Re Toby’s self deprecation point, I think self deprecation is appreciated in both varieties, but it’s more acceptable to deprecate someone else in BrE. If they are behaving like they are a cut above in some way, they are fair game. Actually there must be another difference somewhere there that I haven’t worked out because there are times when I have to remember not be self deprecating in the US – on resumes for example.

  7. Toby,
    You might feel like coming back to blogging with a different focus. I get the feeling that once we start blogging or writing, there’s a stream that opens up and helps us focus our energies. It might dry up from time to time, and that’s all right, because there are other things to take care of (like babies…), but the pleasure of writing and clarification through conversation really make blogging a Good Thing.

    Now that’s a great sentence: “But I think there’s a difference between being serious and doing seriosity.”
    I’m not sure whether I understand, and I don’t know if this has anything to do with anything (to quote Toby) but I remember Pierre Bourdieu had this whole involved theory of habitus. One aspect was that some things seem to come naturally to the elite, as they are dyed in the wool, whereas the nouveau riche try to acquire cultural capital second-hand, and there’s always some loophole. It seems to me that if you “do” something, you’re slipping into a standard role that is not your own, or not as differentiated as what you’ve grown up with.

    I agree that understanding the context is key. Not cracking up during the pledge of allegiance: There are special ways that children are “allowed to break the rules” when standing at attention, including mumbling the words and fidgeting just a bit, but the limits are very clear, and they’re different for teens and adults. Same for the situation at customs.

    Are there limits to being deprecating about others in the UK? I sort of wonder, because it’s really part of a whole set of communication habits that are different. I find tweet banter on Twitter between Brits difficult to participate in, for instance. Deadpan it is, and I never know how to respond, acknowledge and pick up and carry on.

  8. Hi Anne

    Just stepped across from the Melta Ning Forum.

    Funny how all you Americans loved Reagan. We Australians never took him seriously – in other words in our eyes he had no credibility. That he was a Hollywood actor made it only worse.
    And that a president could tell fireside jokes to the nation also disqualified him in our eyes. I remember how horrified we all were with that line of his about starting the bombing of Russia.

    But then we’re more like the British – we expect our leaders to walk a fine line between being serious but not taking themselves seriously. On the subject of not taking yourself seriously, we have what we call in Australia “the tall poppy syndrome”. It means cutting a person down to size when they take themselves too seriously.


  9. Hi Anne,
    Yes, when I said ‘doing seriosity’ I was thinking in terms of playing a role. Tony Hayward was called before the committee to answer their questions and he was following the process. But did he really answer them? Well, on one level, yes. But on another level, no. There’s being serious and there’s officially playing the part of being serious but just going through the motions. And of course people can do both at the same time, but sometimes it’s just one or the other.

    Are we talking about irony in the sense of saying the opposite of what you mean? It seems pretty common on both sides of the pond to me. I’d like to try to write a blog post about it sometime, but we do like to tell ourselves that our ironic British sense of humour is one of our finest qualities. Here’s an Alan Bennet quote you might like:
    “We’re conceived in irony. We float in it from the womb. It’s the amniotic fluid… Joking but not joking. Caring but not caring. Serious but not serious.”
    So very briefly, I reckon we tend to live in a state of ambiguity. I think it’s not that we’re always joking when we speak, but we like to leave our options open.

    Re what the limits are to having a go at someone, well, it depends, but I think you can go much further than in the UK than the US. The thing about ambiguity is it means you don’t have to go ‘on record’ as saying something – it makes it easier to retract things later. So if we’re ambiguous and we say something that someone else thinks sounds pompous or conceited and then they have a go at us, we can decide we were just joking. Or if we say something nasty to someone else and then they get offended, we can decide we were joking. So we probably don’t always know whether we’re joking ourselves when we say something, because it’ll depend on how the conversation develops.

    I reckon the neat thing about the irony it is it accommodates more cut and thrust in conversations by lowering the risk of relationship damage. But I can see it must make it very hard for any foreigners who might be kind enough to try to communicate with us. Still, how to respond? Perhaps some other folks have some suggestions?

  10. Thanks folks for the interesting discussion.
    For me, it’s just nice to listen to Reagan’s joke-telling style on the video.
    It could be useful to use to encourage class participants (adults and business people) to develop their own personal style of telling jokes or simply anecdotes and make them enjoyble to listen to.
    Thanks Anne, for the useful find.
    And re Germans and a sense of humour – I appreciate their style – find it sort of ‘innocent’ or ‘gullible’ in a really nice way.

  11. Welcome Phillip! Hello Joan!

    I always thought that he grew in stature in the eyes of the world as time went on, but maybe I’m wrong.

    It’s interesting, Vicki, this image of acting and playing a role. Our “roles” aren’t things we slip into and out of, even if we become aware of what we are doing and see ourselves from the outside as we learn about alternative ways of life, and learn to take on new roles and responsibilities. It’s never just acting, since it’s connected to our livelihood, citizenship, social class, neighborhood, family, values. So I sort of wonder what it means to “go through the motions”. What does that distance to oneself mean, is it alienation? is it intercultural skill? is the ability more pronounced in some cultures than others?

    I’m going to let someone else continue this – Sorry, I’ve got compacts through the end of the week, but will be checking the blog in the evenings. Dear newcomers, any comment you leave will be posted by nightfall!

  12. Hi Anne,

    I wrote something similar and it was the first time to know each other as I remember.

    Also, I think Obama got lots of American peoples to his side by his sense of humor. I thought to end this comment with jokes.

    Wife: One more word from you and I will leave you and go back to my mother …………. Husband: Taxi!

    Wife: To think that I had to marry you to find out just how stupid you are ……….. Husband: You should have realised that when I asked you to marry me.

    Why is divorce so expensive? Because it’s worth it!

    Each year on his wedding anniversary he goes down to City Hall in the hope that his marriage license has expired.

    Anne, I hope that you will understand why I am still single….hehe

    Bye Anne.

  13. Hassan, if your comment proves anything it is that humour divides people as much as it connects them. What you may find funny won’t necessarily be funny to me. And vice-versa.

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