A Very British Thing

My colleague Jack has written a couple of entertaining posts in this blog about the variations in the pub quiz night around the world, and down the years we’ve been in contact with quiz companies as far afield as New Zealand, Kenya, South Africa, India and the US.

Nevertheless, there’s little doubt that the pub quiz night is, primarily, a British phenomenon. It’s rare to go past a pub in the UK which isn’t advertising some kind of quiz night. They’re as much part of British culture as overpriced music festivals, phone hacking and cricketers born in South Africa.

And that Britishness, of course, informs content – every nation has its own exclusive reservoir of shared knowledge,  that moment when something is mentioned that a person of that nationality will respond to instantly with a knowing smile, and a foreigner will be entirely bemused by – and it’s only natural that questions in a pub quiz tap into that. As I’ve written before, you want people to know the answers to your questions, but you want them to feel that they’re part of an elite club in knowing those answers – this is an aspect of that phenomenon.

But, for our Corporate Quizzes, it’s not so easy. We’re responsible for doing more than run a competitive, accurate quiz with some fun quizzes, we’re responsible for giving all the staff of a company, who have paid us as professionals, an enjoyable evening, an evening where they don’t feel left out, disinterested or stupid. And bearing in mind the pub quiz – which is basically what we do, with a few significant bells on – is such a British thing, one has to work hard to avoid the risk of making non-British employees feel left out, disinterested or stupid.

This effort to make the quiz a hospitable environment for all runs right through our process, from finding out in advance who it is for, to judging how much needs to be explained at the start (from very little beyond the fact people need to write a team name to a very clear explanation of what the quiz is and how it will work) to changing the questions we are going to ask while the quiz is going if we realise the crowd is more diverse than we’d thought. You can also right wrongs. You might have asked a question about British TV and then overhear a mildly vociferous “How am I meant to know that, I’m German”. Well, then, we can throw in a few questions about Germany – we’ve got a huge database of questions and they’re ready to be used.

There are different scenarios, and we try to arm ourselves in advance by finding out as much as we can about who is taking part. In some ways, it is easier to prepare the quiz if you know it is a hugely cosmopolitan crowd – I did a quiz recently where I was told that 50% would be Indian, the other 50% from all over Europe. I could simply discount anything Anglocentric in my preparation, do a bit of research to write some Indian questions, it all worked pretty well.

When there is a large crowd of whom you know the majority are British but there are a fair few of other nationalities, the balance can be harder to strike. The fact is, a lot of our best question are on British culture, those little things we as question-writers remember that we are pretty confident our participants will remember or work out too – that can be one of the great joys of a quiz. If, as quizmaster, you know that the question works for 80% of the people there, surely that’s fair enough? Well, yes, but it’s got to be balanced out with international questions, even questions that people not from Britain have a better chance of knowing every now and then.

It can be tricky – if you make a quiz too universal, do you run the risk of making it bland, not much more than a general knowledge test? e.g. What is the capital of Sweden? Where were the 1996 Olympics? (yawn) Not if your questions are good enough.

At QuizQuizQuiz, there are two main sides to our business, and that need to write “international” material is even more prevalent in our question-writing business than in our quiz-running business. I’m not going to say too much about this now, just touch on it briefly. We do big projects where the target market is British, or American, European, wherever. We have writers and translators of lots of different nationalities to make sure we can cover pretty much any enquiry that comes our way. When you’re asked to write 10,000 questions and the target market is “international”, it can be a little tricky to know where to target it. Who is this putative “international” quiz player to whom all my questions will be suited? Sometimes I can’t help but visualise some translatlantic man of mystery who holidays in Monte Carlo, has homes in London and New York, spent a year travelling through Asia, and spends their time reading National Geographic and watching the Discovery Channel. This is the 21st century modern quizzer… well, perhaps not, but we hope that our skill is, over time, working out how to write questions which prove that quizzes are not just a British thing.


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