There is no American translation of the phrase ‘taking the piss’. If an American were to vocalize some of the things an English person feels free to express, we’d call it ‘being an asshole.’ Taking the piss is akin sarcasm, but usually far less mean. It can also mean ‘to take advantage of’ but the former is the interpretation I’ve experienced the most.
English don’t poke fun at someone to be cruel or make a point they do it show a familiarity with their friends, to let them know they see and accept all sides of them. Rule number one of taking the piss is that you do it to someone you know well. The Tesco check out girl with the bad attitude and blue mohawk would be out of order. Valid, but out of order. Interestingly enough this is where an American would step in and vocalize their distain. But it would not be funny. Bad service is not something Americans find amusing in contrast to the English who seem to hardly notice. Taking the piss however, is meant to be very funny. Rule two is that the recipient must have a good sense of humour and be able to laugh at themselves. Most English are pretty thick skinned so this isn’t an issue. American’s skin? Not so thick. Human flaws to an American are not something to be spotlighted with light humor. Flaws are to be fixed, or failing that, hidden. It’s not as if people don’t notice them it’s just not considered polite dinner conversation. The English are of course well versed in what is polite dinner conversation but every so often they will defy the rules and this is one of those times.
The British love to talk about their collective clever sense of humour and how it’s difficult for foreigners, especially American’s, to understand as we don’t get irony. This annoys me as you might have sensed. When I was once accused of ‘not getting British humour’ because I didn’t laugh at an asinine joke, I made an attempt at a ‘piss taking’ rebuttal explaining that I didn’t laugh, not because I didn’t get the joke, but because (gasp) I didn’t think it was funny. I was met with a stare of death. I must admit, I knew I was entering a no-go area. The Brits are very sensitive on this subject. They are allowed to imply you are a stupid but you may not accuse them of not being funny. This is considered very bad form. There is an art to taking the piss and I had failed miserably. The fact that I was completely justified is not the point. I tried my hand at taking the piss, or sarcasm, with a topic that already annoyed me. If a person senses resentment it’s no longer a light hearted game. It’s confrontational. Which is certainly more American. I suppose I can’t help who I am but I can keep my mouth shut. Or try to anyway. Taking the piss is only successful if you aren’t angry. One needs to fully accept and even cherish the flaw they are bringing into light. Only then are you met with laughter.
I have grown up with American sensibilities and behaviour patterns but the longer I live here the more I notice a merging of two ways of living and relating to people. Having said that, the two do often remain separate. Of all the people I know in the US there is one single person whom I allow to take the piss at will and never take it negatively. In the UK? Loads of people take the piss out of me and for the most part it’s quite funny. It’s an inclusive act. It’s all part of forging friendships over here. Even though I’m much better than I once was at being at the receiving end of these antics, I still remain terrible at being the one dishing it out. I end up hurting someone’s feelings and having to call and apologize. It’s just not me really. The English are good at sensing boundaries which makes them innately better at this than many Americans as our borders are more blurred lines rather than stone walls. This is evident both emotionally and physically. English gardens are fenced off from their neighbours where in America it’s often difficult to tell where one property ends and another one begins.
None of this is to say that the English don’t also get it wrong sometimes but it’s gotten over faster as the British ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ won’t allow for too much wallowing. The Brits don’t necessarily do long drawn out conversations about feelings and the meaning of life. They like to try to find the humour in life first. Perhaps they have point. Maybe we American’s don’t always get it.