David Lee Roth has attempted to explode the common saying that Americans don’t understand sarcasm by dismantling his countrymen’s use of the reverse compliment.
In a vodcast on his website the Van Halen frontman says use of the verbal trick can bring people together – but it can also keep people apart if that’s the intention.
He cites examples of two old friends greeting each other and black people in the slavery era to demonstrate each argument.
Roth says: “Trying to explain American humour to people from outside the United States is an art in itself – particularly in Japan where the idea of sarcasm is completely alien.
“Even just basic greetings: ‘Hey you fuckin’ knucklehead, how you been?’ to them sounds like an insult. The reverse – ‘Man, that’s a bad car’ – means something negative to them. You have to be careful.”
He argues that words are given meaning based on the facial expression, body language, tone of voice and pauses round them, and that’s why multicultural environments will be found to employ swear words more than others.
“When you have Mr Chin living next to Mr Sopranowitz, who lives next to Mr Voygavichavich who lives next to Mr Gonzales, nobody can speak to each other,” Roth says. “Their kids have learned to communicate with each other but the parents can’t communicate beyond 30 words of English.
“Let’s take the word ‘shit’. When you have the word ‘shit’ you can make it mean 15 different things. ‘Where did you get this shit? No shit! Try this shit, this shit’s the shit.’ You can say the same thing with a different tone, face and body language: ‘This stuff is shit. This is shitty. This stuff is shit. No shit.’ It’s different – but trying to explain this to someone who wasn’t raised around it creates a whole lot of questions.
He continues that another reason for reversal humour was to disguise affiliation in the presence of an enemy, citing a theoretical example of one black slave telling a white plantation owner that another slave is “a bad man, that crazy motherfucker,” so the owner thinks the two are not friends – when in fact it’s a complement.
Roth explains: “To the half-witted white guy it sounds like all insults – ‘Motherfucker? Well, that’s one of the lowest.’”
In another example he demonstrates how old friends might greet each other. “‘Bobby – you’re looking good! They make those pants in your size?’ Bobby would seem not to notice your insult and would say: ‘Yeah, like the shirt you’re wearing – I understand they’re going to be making them for men very soon!” To the uninitiated it sounds like someone’s going to pull a gun.’”
And he reveals he’s even tried to make his point in a Buddhist temple. “I said, ‘I don’t think there’s any laughter in Heaven.’ You could have heard a pin drop.
“There ain’t no laughter in Heaven – it all comes from pain. It all comes from something going wrong, then something going wronger, then it really goes wrong and then you’ve just got to laugh. It says that in the Bible – or at least is should.”
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