I was recently approached by a Liverpudlian wearing a corporate t-shirt and waving a clipboard. Did I have a minute to spare, he wanted to know.
Having worked for the NHS last year, accosting innocent shoppers at retail parks and signing them up for some newsletter they didn't want or need, I felt it in my karmic interests to stop and speak to the lad. He told me about some service or product and asked where I was from, guessing not Liverpool. "Newcastle," I replied. "Oh," he said, cocking his head, "you don't really have a Geordie accent." I agreed and allowed that I'm actually American. His face lit up. "That's great!" he declared. "Good on you for learning sarcasm!" But then he worried. "Do you have a British bank account, then?" he implored. I did not at the time. "No worries," he said, and took his leave, urging me to "keep up the sarcasm!"
Oh you bloody Brits. Americans are actually very handy with sarcasm. How else do you explain the Simpsons? (I've actually asked this question of an Englishman, who replied, "Well, the Simpsons is very British.") Listen--just because some fat South Carolinian tourists missed your mordant zinger when asking directions outside Paddington Station doesn't mean that irony escapes us all. (This nefarious stereotype is steadily reinforced by the liberal, Jewish, hemophiliac media.)
I think the difference that divides us is just when and how we use irony, and to what effect. Take for example a short clip from Ian McEwan's new book, about the protagonist preventing someone's queue-jumping:
Abrubtly, driven by shameless rectitude, Beard stepped forward to deny the man space, and felt [the queue-jumper's] briefcase bang against his knee. At that moment Beard turned and sought out his gaze and said politely, though his heart beat a little harder, 'Terribly sorry.'A rebuke poorly disguised as an apology, pretending manners to a man he would rather at that moment kill. It was good to be back in England.
Many Americans in a similar situation would turn to a sharp "What the hell, asshole?!" instead of irony. Similarly, an American driver trapped under the front of a truck and dragged for a minute along a highway would probably not say, regarding making a call (to emergency services) while driving, "I wasn't on hands-free, but I figured I wasn't really driving the car." One can imagine an American cursing the driver's idiocy and announcing intentions to sue.
So, my British friends, when you come across an American being direct, just know that it's not because he's chosen to not be ironic, or unable to be; rather, Americans revel in being direct and feel little shame in expressing anger or disapproval straightforwardly - just ask national hero George W. Bush.