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There's this paragraph in the book:

“One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about humans was their habit of continually stating and repeating the very very obvious, as in It's a nice day, or You are very tall or Oh dear you seem to have fallen down a thirty-foot well, are you all right?”

Am I correct that Douglas Adams was joking about how British people talk to each other (like, 'Are you all right') using this paragraph? Or is this paragraph just a simple joke without mocking the Brits' culture?

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  • 42
    Hey Douglas Adams, we have a question for you, but you appear to be quite dead. Sorry for the bother.
    – NKCampbell
    Jan 19 at 23:36
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    I wouldn't say this behavior is limited to British people.
    – Null
    Jan 19 at 23:37
  • 14
    @NKCampbell - Like Hotblack Desiato, he's only dead for tax reasons.
    – WOPR
    Jan 20 at 10:25
  • 4
    "Are you all right" — do we say at that a lot? Sure, we say it when we find people who've fallen down a thirty-foot well, but I figure that's generalisable. Jan 20 at 11:04
  • 13
    The last of the 3 has a tiny, tiny hint of English understatement
    – Ian Bush
    Jan 20 at 11:06

2 Answers 2

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At the time he wrote the original radio series and first novel, Adams had lived his entire life in England, and was writing for a British audience, so a lot of the cultural references are based on that culture. For instance, there are jokes about tea, gin and tonic, and a key plotline in one of the later books revolves around cricket; an American author might instead have referenced coffee, whisky, and baseball.

The distinction between mocking human behaviour and mocking British behaviour is therefore rather blurred, since humanity is represented almost entirely by British people (Arthur and Trillian) and people who've visited Britain (Ford and, briefly, Zaphod).

Probably the most parsimonious explanation is that this passage is mocking how people Adams knew talked to each other, and those people happened to be British as well as Earthlings.

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    "people happened to be British as well as Earthlings." - probably Earthlings, though as his books show, it's very hard to tell.
    – Paddy
    Jan 20 at 15:55
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    @Barmar Well, that's kind of what I'm saying: if the reader sees it as a Britishism, that's more likely because Adams was British than that he was consciously comparing the British to anyone else.
    – IMSoP
    Jan 20 at 15:55
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    As an American reader of Adams, I just saw it as a humanism. There were lots of other references that seemed more specifically British.
    – Barmar
    Jan 20 at 16:13
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    If you are talking about Life, The Universe, and Everything, didn't the entire book's premise revolve around a joke involving cricket rather than having a joke about cricket? :)
    – chepner
    Jan 20 at 18:55
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    Its worth nothing that British people mocking British people and British-isms has been a national pastime for most of recorded British history…
    – Moo
    Jan 21 at 8:01
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Probably mocking, but gently mocking. When someone has fallen down a 30' well, do you say 'shall I call an ambulance' or 'are you all right'? Depending on the injuries, one is an over-reaction and one an under-reaction. It is possible to move straight to the most dramatic (ambulance, undertaker) or possible to just ask. Yes, it is funny that 'are you all right' (the traditional British comment) is the same phrase you would use if they hadn't fallen down a well.

As to the first phrases, fundamentally - the point of small talk is that it is 'small' i.e. not meaningful. If one takes it as it is meant, no one minds, as at least you are talking, rather than shuffling your feet and being embarrassed, and can then move on to 'big' talk, dates, marriage, children or what you will.

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  • Hi, welcome to SF&F. The question was asking if the quote is particularly mocking the British. Your answer doesn't suggest that this is a specifically British way of speaking, or just generally how small talk works. You should edit your answer to more clearly reply to the question.
    – DavidW
    Jan 21 at 19:56

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