Humor of Politeness Misunderstood

Humor of Politeness Misunderstood is from a book by humorist Bill Bryson titled ‘Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe’, page 202-203.

This excerpt is about the humor of politeness uttered in any language the hearer cannot understand -- usually.


Katz and I, while hitchhiking through Austria, had made friends with two Germans of a similar age, Thomas and Gerhard, who were making their way by thumb from Berlin to India with a view to finding spiritual enlightenment and good drugs.

We camped together in a high Alpine pass, somewhere along the road between Salzburg and Klagenfurt,

and in the evening we walked into the nearest village, where we found awaiting us a perfect inn, full of black-paneled wood and a log fire with a sleeping dog before it and ruddy-faced yeoman customers swinging steins of beer.

We ate sausages with dabs of mustard and drank many beers.

It was most convivial.

I remember sitting there late in the evening, glowing with drink and thinking what a fine place this was and what good welcoming people the Austrians were—they were smiling warmly at us and occasionally raising glasses to us in toast—when the Germans leaned forward and told us in low voices that we were in danger.

The Austrians, it seemed, were mocking us.

Unaware that two of our party could understand every word they said, they were talking freely—every one of them: the women, the landlord, the landlord’s wife, the whole damned village—about taking us out back and, as Gerhard translated,

“of giving us a haircut and running us through wiz zer pitchforks.”

A roar of laughter passed across the room. Gerhard showed a flicker of a smile.

“Zey say zat perhaps zey should also make us to eat of zer horse dung.”

“Oh, swell,” said Katz. “As if I haven’t eaten enough shit on this trip already.”

My head swiveled like a periscope. Those cheery smiles had become demonic leers.

A man opposite toasted me again and gave me a wink that said: “Hope you like horse shit, kid.”

I turned to Gerhard. “Should we call the police?”

“I sink zat man over zere is zer police.”

“Oh, swell,” Katz said again.

“I sink maybe we should just go to zer door as quietly as we can and zen run like hell.”

We arose, leaving behind the unfinished beers, strolled casually to the door, nodding to our would-be assailant as we passed, and ran like crazy.

We could hear a fresh roar of laughter lift the inn roof off its moorings,

but no one followed us

and the threat of being forced to eat horse shit remains—thank you God, thank you, thank you—forever in the realms of the imagined.


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