If you work in the United Kingdom you must understand the importance of banter.
You’ll find it in any job that involves working with other people – even the House of Commons has its back-and-forth, as can be seen in a viral YouTube video between David Cameron and Ed Miliband.
Whether you work full-time, part-time or with a temp agency, as you enter the British workforce you’ll likely find yourself tugged into the whirlpool of office banter.
I work in a law firm with litigators, solicitors, paralegals, secretaries and admin clerks, where jokes and insults are fired over the parapets like artillery shells. No sooner have I hung up my coat each morning than I’m part of the cutting observational humour from which no one is spared, so dry and deadpan it can stump the uninitiated.
Banter comes in waves depending on the office atmosphere and the day of the week. But whether it’s a moody Monday or a sociable Friday, from the moment you clock in until you head home, everyone is trying to find out what makes their colleagues tick.
Once discovered, they’ll let each other know, expecting remarks to be hurled back, until everyone in the immediate area is involved in joke warfare. What you need is a good comeback – a well-timed response will get everyone on your side and crown you the champion of that particular banter session, until the next opportunity for everyone to stop what they’re doing and resume the jokes.
Since starting my job I’ve used my Aussie-ness to break the ice. I’ll amp up my accent, tell stories about emu wars, drop bears and spiders the size of dinner plates. Some people take me at my word, others know better. But a lot of what I say is lost in translation. I say ‘dance’ with the antipodean lilt my British friends all love to imitate and I thought I was being psycho-analysed the first time I was asked whether I was ‘alright’ which, it turned out, is British for ‘G’day’.
Any noticeable difference means an opportunity to spark some sort of verbal hijinks and when work is dull, people will use anything for fuel. The trick is to take your weirdness and wear it proudly. Never take anything too seriously, least of all yourself. Everyone has something to ridicule. An Aussie expat in London should expect a barrage of convict jokes, accent imitations and other forms of blatant racism.
Banter is a lot of fun, but how do we know where to do draw the line? Sometimes we get together in the pub after work and exchange jokes, each more vulgar than the last, until someone says something so shocking it’s no longer funny.
The best kind of humour is cutting but fair, not simply pointing out flaws or saying things at the expense of others, but subjecting the ‘bantee’ to a good-hearted roast with the expectation that they will have the good humour to laugh at themselves. To partake in banter you need to stop short of making enemies, which means you need to engage with those of an equal or lower position than yourself and to make it clear that you’re joking.
My colleagues and I sit in a quadrant of cubicles outside the HR office, so no one should be warier of being too offensive, at which point someone must take the role of that person who says “it’s all just a bit of banter”, who tries to lighten the mood as jaws drop and heads shake.
Whether in a professional setting or at the pub after a hard day’s work, it seems banter has a place in every situation in Britain. An Aussie expat stepping into their first job in the often gloomy, never too serious UK workplace should be prepared to be teased, to tease others within limits and to absorb some of that dry British wit.
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