Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Spoken In Jest

I have a problem: my deadpan delivery often gets me into trouble when I attempt to make a funny or ironic comment. What I am positive can only be taken as a witticism, often ends up striking others as the Truth, and I worry that I'm coming off as unbelievably crass or a phenomenal liar.

Two of my colleagues are Russian women who look as much alike as beets and cabbages. One is small-boned and delicate and the other is tall and buxom, and their personalities too are completely different. The only thing these two women have in common besides gender and nationality is the ability to speak fluent English. But for some reason, everyone seems to get their names mixed up, and to my endless shame, the other day I too did this: I referred to Katya as Nina. Within her hearing.

Katya (full of justifiable righteous indignation): "I'm Katya!"

Me (blushing and horrified): "Katya! I'm so sorry, Katya. Of course your name is Katya!"

Katya: "Really, I don't see why people have such a hard time getting our names right!"

Me: "You're so right -- I don't know why we can't get your names straight! It's ridiculous!"

Katya: Hmph.

Me (unable to help myself and desperate to lighten up the situation): "Maybe it's because you and Nina look so exactly alike!"

Katya (spluttering angrily): "We do not!"

Because of course she didn't get it.

So I had a lot of explaining to do. And after all that, I'm not sure Katya still doesn't think I'm daft as all get out, and half blind to boot.

A couple of years ago, my friend Dina gave me three huge bags of surplus candy when her husband decided to quit his vending business. It was just before Halloween, which was handy: I was able to practically fill the bag of every trick-or-treater who came to our house.

"Wow!" a pirate and a vampire exclaimed, their eyes popping at the handfuls of candy I was passing out. They looked about thirteen and I recognized them from my daughters' school.

"You're really nice," they murmured appreciatively.

"I'm not really nice," I told them, beckoning them closer and lowering my voice conspiratorially. "See, I've got a deal going with the dentist."

They stared at me, suspicious. "What kind of deal?"

"For every 100 grams of candy I pass out, I get a 1% discount on my next root canal."

"Really?" breathed the pirate.

"You bet. So far he's knocked off 5%. I'm going for 20%; I think I can make it, too." I peered over his shoulder. "Are there still a lot of trick-or-treaters out there?"

"What's a root canal?" asked the vampire, his eyes narrowed.

"It's something you need when you get old," I informed them. "After a life of over-indulgence in candy."

I thought they were smiling behind their masks, so imagine my surprise when my daughters told me it had gotten around town that I had a deal going with the dentist.

It was ages before I worked up the nerve to go back for that root canal.


Charlie said...

Boy, do I know that feeling of open mouth, insert foot, and swallow.

It's a curse we share, Mary. We're witty as hell, but the populace cannot tell if we're kidding or not.

In my case, I'm usually not.

Christy said...

Oh, the straight man of the comedy team is where all the talent lies! Be proud of your deadpan delivery and spot-on timing. Then employ someone else to be your funny sidekick. I'm sure one of your more...challenging students would be up to the task.

Eryl Shields said...

I have the opposite problem: I say something in all seriousness and people fall about laughing. It's most disturbing.

adrienne said...

Oh, I get in trouble for those kinds of comments too. I've heard that some cultures don't get the humor in sarcasm/irony at's not a universal form of humor. I just wish I could realize where it is appreciated.

Robin said...

Those stories are adorable. I think you're funny! For the record, I would have laughed - even if I were a vampire.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've been known to mess up where humor is concerned myself.

Bish Denham said...

Youth and culture differences can be hazardous to your humor.

Do not give up the battle of bringing a little laughter into the world!

Mary Witzl said...

Charlie -- I always have every intention of being funny, but apparently my wit is just a little bit too dry to go down well. And as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, wit obviously pre-exists in the funny-bone of the interlocutor.

Christy -- This is good advice and I would take it. The problem is, though, my challenging students just don't get it! If they got the joke, it would be great, but it sails over their heads every single time.

Eryl -- I hope I never did this to you! Actually, this has happened to me. Sometimes I think I need lessons on body language, inflection, and eye control.

Adrienne -- Somewhere there is bound to be an entire country populated by people who get our humor. It would be great to find it, wouldn't it?

Robin -- (Sniff) Thank you. I think I should have asked the vampire and pirate to take off their masks. Then I could have told them that it was just a joke, and that the town dentist and I had no evil plans to promote their cavities.

Charles -- I'm glad you know how I feel. It's so frustrating when I see other people succeeding in the humor department. I know that I have certain gifts; I just wish they were appreciated.

Bish -- Thank you, I won't give up. I'll keep plugging away gamely at the humor thing until someone finally gets it and laughs. Until then, I'll have to rely on unintentionally amusing others by slipping on banana peels, etc.

Tabitha said...

Oh no! I've gotten myself into those situations before, too, and it's so strange trying to get out of it, isn't it?

A collegue of mine once engaged me in friendly banter, so I chimed in. Apparently, he couldn't tell that I was joking along with him and huffed off, saying I couldn't take a joke. To this day, I think he still believes this. :)

Anne Spollen said...

There was a job advertised in the college where I work - it was tutoring a practicing doctor in the US who spoke ESL - American sarcasm. I had to read it three times before I was sure I got the ad right. The ad said she needed to understand her patients better, and sarcasm puzzled her. She was afraid of making a mistakek in not understanding it, so maybe it is a cultural hallmark.

Lily Cate said...

Oh no, this is me!
I can't help myself.
I've even made some comments to the nurse at the Dr's office- and one time it ended up on my chart!

Mary Witzl said...

Tabitha -- How reassuring it is to learn that I'm not the only one who does this! I'm sure people think that I'm a very muddled sort, given all the things I've joked about. Personally, I think we just have superior senses of humor. I think we'd find each other enormously funny.

Anne -- What a great story! Did you end up tutoring her, and if so, how did you go about teaching her sarcasm? I had to explain the terms 'sarcasm' and 'cynicism' to my pre-intermediate class and I had my work cut out for me there. Apparently, 'cynicism' isn't a concept easily translatable into Turkish.

Perhaps I should advertise for a joke-delivery instructor. (Uh...that was a joke.)

Lily -- How nice to know that I'm in good company here. Now I'm wondering what you said that ended up in a doctor's charts. Whenever I have to fill in one of those patient history forms, I'm always tempted to play around with 'sex' and 'substance abuse' myself.

Kim Ayres said...

I've always loved your sense of humour, Mary :)

Danette Haworth said...

OMG, LOL! Mary--you need to get these stories in print!

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Thank you! I'm so glad you think I've got one!

Danette -- I've approached a few agents, but I've been told that I'm not famous and thus not a good risk. I'm seriously thinking of doing something a la David Blaine to advance my cause. (That is a joke, by the way...)

Merry Monteleone said...

I do this kind of thing all the time... mostly it's because my mouth moves faster than my brain and I say things without thinking... sometimes I'm trying to be funny.

There've been a number of times where I've said things meant to be funny/silly and they just thought I was an idiot... ah well... perhaps I am.

debra said...

#2 daughter usually "gets it" when my sarcasm rears its head. One time, though, I had bought a jar of an immune system supplement. The directions said to suck on a lozenge. I suggested that there was only one lozenge and that when she was done sucking on it, she put it back in the jar. She wanted to know if er had to share.

Kappa no He said...

Ha ha, I love it. I love deadpan humor. Keep it up. Sooner or later they'll catch on.

Mary Witzl said...

Merry -- I'm beginning to see that the reason so many of my attempts at humor go over like lead balloons is because the people they're aimed at don't know me well enough. This is probably why I just leave people staring in amazement. Which means I must look even more clueless than I really am. Still, I'm betting you and I would find each other funny. We wouldn't have to keep reminding people that we were only joking.

Debra -- That is absolutely a comment I would have made, and it's refreshing and reassuring to know that other people do this too. And my second daughter is usualy the one who takes things literally. Come to think of it, so am I -- I might have gotten snagged on your shared immune system lozenge remark myself.

Kappa -- The problem is, they usually don't catch on! Still, I can't stop myself. It's just in my nature to keep at it.

laura said...

I love it! I do the same thing while waitressing (which is dangerous considering I depend upon those damn tips). Our chefs add lovely flower garnishes to their entrees and customers frequently ask me if they're edible. I realize this is a reasonable question but I can't help myself and frequently say, "Oh, no, that's deadly nightshade I wouldn't eat it if I were you!" I'm always guaranteed a reaction.

Mary Witzl said...

Laura -- That is such a great comment that I honestly wish I could wait on tables again, just to try it. And I am absolutely going to garnish my salads with nasturtiums, then sit back and wait for the inevitable. I can hardly wait!

Barbara Martin said...

Another wonderful post on life. I've put my foot in my mouth many a time. Thanks, Mary.

Mary Witzl said...

Barbara -- It's so awful to do this when you are CERTAIN that what you say will be interpreted as a joke. I love deadpan humor myself, so I strive to dish it out. After all these years, I ought to know that not everyone can digest it.