Americans ruin their jokes with two simple letters. Miserable twits. (JK!)

When Americans say “just kidding, shortened to “JK”, the strange thing is that the­y’re really kidding.

To realize this was unnervin­g for me, an expat Brit, because I realized that all the insults I had thought were jokes, but were not followed by “JK”, were actually insults. Even more concerning were the occasions that I had joked, without ringing the JK jest bells. Now I understand why my audience was silent.

In the UK, saying you’re “just joking” is how you kill a joke. A real joke comes from convincing people you’re serious, until they think it through themselves and conclude that what was said is so outrageous that it must be jest. The laughter is partly relief. Humor lies in the slim possibility that you might not be just kidding. Saying you’re “just joking” is how you kill a joke. 

I recall once hearing a physician speak about the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) regulations. The speaker spoke in such a hypnotic monotone that I wished he was more regulated. And then suddenly, his voice dropped to a whisper: “The people working for the FDA are Stasi officers who were given green cards in exchange for commitment to the Federal Government.”

Ha! A promising joke, I thought, as my diaphragm prepared for rare laughter.
Within a nanosecond came the neutering disclaimer: “Just kidding.” Alas.

The joke wasn’t in comparing the FDA to the Stasi. Surely such a comparison cannot be made without some sympathy for the Stasi. The physician was funny because he was so frustrated by the FDA’s bean counters that he felt justified, fleetingly, in comparing the FDA to an oppressive state apparatus. In other words, I repeat, the humor lay in the possibility that he might not be kidding.

Until “JK.”

Why is joking so different here? A few conjectures:

First, Americans are sincere and want others to know that they are sincere. A joke, which might depart from sincerity, must be immediately announced after the event just like one announces the birth of a child.

 For Brits, being intensely disliked by people in far off places of whom we know very little is one less thing to worry about. Brits expect everyone, including ourselves and particularly our politicians, to be full of BS. While Americans elect their most sincere (seeming) politician to the Oval Office, we elect our least worst politician to the highest office. When former British Prime Minister, John Major, declared in his victory speech “I will create a classless society,” I wanted to ROTFLMAO. “Nice one John!” I thought. ! How many beers have you had to drink?” But I voted for him anyway.

Were Bill Clinton British, his second career could have been as a comedian, not motivational speaker. His priceless quote “it depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” would have been canonized in our national psyche. For American Clintophiles, this line is a source of marginal embarrassment.

Second, Americans compartmentalize their moods, much like seasons. A “just kidding” that acknowledges the joke also reassures a listener that the speaker has returned to seriousness, the default state. Americans are serious and they get things done. For Brits, irony, pre-irony, sarcasm, facetiousness, whining, joking and seriousness blend. Four seasons in one sentence.

Third, Americans wish to be liked and fear offending. I’m talking not just about the tirelessly pleasant, diabetes-inducing, Mr. “Minnesota Nice.” I also mean New Yorkers. I will not speculate that this is because of a quasi-imperialistic foreign policy, otherwise I’d have to say “JK”, which I don’t wish to. But I do wonder. For Brits, thanks to the catastrophic decline of pre-eminence after the Second World War, being intensely disliked by people in far off places of whom we know very little is one less thing to worry about.

It’s not that the US is unfunny. To put it delicately, our humor is different. In fact, the US is a really funny country, not just intentionally.

It gave the world the laugh-a-minute Simpsons, the brilliantly satirical Onion, and, of course, Bush Jr. And since moving to the US, some Americanisms have grown on me. I find the reflexive “You’re welcome” and “You bet” infinitely more pleasant than the Pavlovian grunt I hear back home after saying “Thank you.” I even like America’s mildly instructional “Have a nice day.”

But I can’t abide “just kidding.” It’s an exculpatory waiver, a spoiler alert, which bludgeons spontaneity. It regulates humor, robbing us of the joy of discovering it ourselves. Surely we can discern shades of seriousness, unaided.

Follow Saurabh on Twitter at @RogueRad. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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