ARE THE BRITISH TOO POLITE TO SPEAK THE TRUTH?
Can you remember this scene from “3 Weddings and a Funeral”? This comically portrays the lack of directness typical of British people, which any expat or foreigner will have to come to terms with:
The typical British etiquette especially used by English people, includes: the Stiff Upper Lip and being Overly Polite, which together lead to a Lack of Directness. Of course, this may seem a bit stereotypical because not everybody is like that, but it is indeed a British trademark, and an important part of the culture of being British.
Exploring British Politeness does not only mean plunging into the territory of good manners and saying “Please”, “Thank You”, and “Sorry” at every possible occasion.
UNDERSTANDING THE BRITISH
Late journalist and writer George Mikes once wrote: “The English have no soul; they have the understatement instead”.
50 years later, little has changed. The British are still the kings of understatement.
It is not just a specialty of the British sense of humour; it is a way of life.
“When gales uproot trees and sweep away roofs of houses, you should remark that’s ‘a bit blowy'” – George Mikes”-
Engaging in conversation with a Brit entails the foreigner having an ability to completely understand what the English speaker is implying. Knowledge of British English is useful to avoid misunderstandings (you wouldn’t want to ask the shop assistant for pants when you are shopping for a pair of trousers), but it’s only part of the process for successful communication with a Brit.
While British English can be learnt, you do need to be particularly perceptive when talking to a Brit.
“It’s a bit wet out there, I might join you later”
What the British mean….
“IT’S ABSOLUTELY PISSING IT DOWN, CONSEQUENTIALLY I’M NOT LEAVING THE HOUSE TODAY UNLESS IT’S ON FIRE!”
Saying something when either it means just the opposite or is playing down a situation (understatement), is part of British etiquette, quite disorienting to cultures used to a more direct communication approach.
You can read more about the subject in the British Stereotypes post.
BRITISH MANNERS IMPLY INSULTING YOU KINDLY
If somebody tells you an untrue story, on the Continent you would remark: “You are a liar!”. Not in England; people may just say: “Oh, is that so?” or “That’s a rather unusual story, isn’t it?”
While the British have their range of swear words, it’s still a British trait to have the tendency of insulting you to your face while remaining decorous.
Here are some practical examples:
“YOUR ENGLISH IS SOMEWHAT UNORTHODOX”
If, having quite a poor knowledge of the English language, you happen to apply for a translator’s job where English is involved, this may be the soft reaction from your would-be-(not)-employer:
Employer: “I’m afraid your English is somewhat unorthodox for this job”.
What the British mean..
Employer: “MISS SIMMONS, SHOW THIS GENTLEMAN THE DOOR…“
“THEY ARE SO CLEVER..”
If you look up the word CLEVER in any English dictionary, you may find it means: quick, neat in movement, skilful, talented, ingenious, witty, wise, intelligent, sharp…
A “modern” Englishman may use CLEVER for expressing disgust and contempt for someone. So the meaning may change into : sly, furtive, sneaky, crafty, un-English, un-Scottish, un-Welsh.
“Italians are so CLEVER!”.
What the British MAY mean..
“Italians are very SLY!”
Replying “very interesting” to a remark of yours may actually mean “that is clearly nonsense”.
“No, yeah, that was interesting”
What the British mean..
“YOU’RE BORING ME TO DEATH!!”
“IF YOU SAY SO…”
“If you say so” is actually a subtle way to express strong disagreement
“Lady Gaga is sooo elegant!”
“If you say so..”
What the British mean..
“I’M AFRAID WHAT YOU SAY IS THE HEIGHT OF IDIOCY!!”
Likewise, “That’s certainly one way of looking at it” actually means “You’re wrong, that’s the wrong way of looking at it”.
“One Direction are as talented as David Bowie!”
“That’s certainly one way of looking at it…”
What the British mean..
“WITH THE GREATEST RESPECT”
“With the greatest respect” or “with all due respect”, is used in formal situations when disagreeing in a polite way, so its straightforward meaning is actually: “You have absolutely no idea what you are talking about!”.
Here’s a typical example of British Diplomacy:
“I almost agree…With the greatest respect, could we consider some other options? I would implement only some minor changes..”
What the British mean…
“I DON’T AGREE AT ALL AND I DON’T LIKE YOUR IDEA, I THINK YOU ARE AN IDIOT AND I WOULD CHANGE IT COMPLETELY!”
YOU CAUGHT THE SUN!
“Henry, you caught the sun!”
What the British mean…
“HENRY…YOU LOOK LIKE YOU’VE BEEN SWIMMING IN A VOLCANO!!”
BRITISH MANNERS IMPLY NEVER COMPLAINING
Most Brits will not complain about someone to their face because they expect you to pick up subtle cues and don’t want to have an outright conversation / confrontation about it.
If you step on their foot, they will be likely to blame themselves with a “I’m sure it’s my fault”, or “No harm done” when they actually think “it’s your fault and we both know it” or that “you caused complete and utter chaos”. Do an experiment and try deliberately bumping into people in a public place like the London Tube or a train to see what happens – almost invariably, British people apologize. If you insist on apologizing and are told in reply “Honestly, it doesn’t matter” or “Not to worry”, you’re probably being told “Nothing has never mattered more than this!” or “I will never forget this!”.
Minding one’s own business is one of the basic English viruses, and it simply means that you are not to interfere with others.
“If a man happens to be standing on your foot in the bus, you must not ask him to get off, since it’s clearly his business where he chooses to stand. If your neighbour’s television or radio is blaring military marches till midnight, you may not remonstrate with him, because it is his business what he pleases to listen to and at what time.” – Geroge Mikes-
Isn’t this truly democratic?
BRITISH PEOPLE HIDE THEIR TRUE FEELINGS
True British people will never reveal their own feelings. Ask a Brit how things are going. If the reply is “It could be worse”, or “I’m in a bit of a pickle”, or “It’s fine!”, the hidden meaning may be actually “It couldn’t possibly be any worse”.
“How are things going?!”
“I’m in a bit of a pickle..”
What the British mean..
“I’M IN A CATASTROPHIC SITUATION WITH POSSIBLY FATAL CONSEQUENCES!!!”
BRITISH MAY SAY THINGS OUT OF KINDNESS EVEN IF NOT MEANT
If Italians, Spaniards, Americans or other cultures tell you “You must come for dinner” or “Pop around anytime” they are likely to mean it.
On the other hand, “You must come for dinner”, “Pop around anytime” is actually said out of politeness by many Brits, and it’s often not really meant, while other cultures tend to take it as a direct invitation.
Might this tendency to hidden meanings and lack of directness be considered a flaw?
It depends. Some expats admit preferring cultures where people speak directly and honestly; some others see it as simply tact to avoid hurting people’s feelings.
Like it or not, this is indeed the polite etiquette of the British.
It may take time and effort for a foreigner to get used to British politeness. Many foreign people claim they’ve been living in the UK for years, and still don’t understand the code.
This sounds complicated, but don’t worry dear foreign friend! This handy guide is available to you whenever you are in doubt about what your British friend, boss, boyfriend, girlfriend, colleague, teacher, husband, wife is implying when speaking to you. Keep it handy!
|WHAT THE BRITISH SAY||WHAT THE BRITISH MEAN||WHAT FOREIGNERS UNDERSTAND|
|(Italians) are very clever!||Italians are very sly!||A compliment to (Italians)|
|I hear what you say||I disagree and do not want to discuss it further||He accepts my point of view|
|With the greatest respect||You are an idiot||He is listening to me|
|That’s not bad||That’s good||That’s poor|
|That is a very brave proposal||You are insane||He thinks I have courage|
|Quite good||A bit disappointing||Quite good|
|I would suggest||Do it or be prepared to justify yourself||Think about the idea, but do what you like|
|Oh, incidentally/ by the way||The primary purpose of our discussion is||That is not very important|
|I was a bit disappointed that||I am annoyed that||It doesn’t really matter|
|Very interesting||That is clearly nonsense||They are impressed|
|I’ll bear it in mind||I’ve forgotten it already||They will probably do it|
|I’m sure it’s my fault||It’s your fault||Why do they think it was their fault?|
|You must come for dinner||It’s not an invitation, I’m just being polite||I will get an invitation soon|
|I almost agree||I don’t agree at all||He’s not far from agreement|
|I only have a few minor comments||Please rewrite completely||He has found a few typos|
|Could we consider some other options||I don’t like your idea||They have not yet decided|
|I might join you later…||I’m not leaving the house today unless it’s on fire!||He’s probably going to join me later|
|Excuse me, sorry, is anyone sitting here?||You have three seconds to move your bag…||He’s asking if the seat is vacant|
|Not to worry!||I’ll never forget this!||Not to worry!|
|Bit wet out there…||You’re going to need a snorkel because it’s absolutely pissing it down…!||He’s saying it’s wet out there…|
|Ending an email with “Thanks!”||You inform the receiver you’re perilously close to losing your temper….||He’s ending the email thanking me|
|Right, then, I suppose I really should start thinking about possibly making a move…||Bye!||He’s considering making a move, but he’s still not sure..|
|It’s fine!||It could not possibly get any worse, but no doubt it will do.||He’s saying it’s fine!|
|Ending a sentence with “Perfect”.||Well that’s ruined then!||He’s saying it’s perfect!|
|I’m in a bit of a pickle.||I’m in a catastrophically bad situation with potentially fatal consequences.||I have minor difficulties..|
|Not too bad, actually…||I’m probably the happiest I’ve ever been.||He’s not too bad…|
|Honestly, it doesn’t matter.…||Nothing has ever mattered more than this..||He’s saying it doesn’t matter at all!|
|You’ve caught the sun!…||You look like you’ve been swimming in a volcano.||He noticed my tan!|
|That’s certainly one way of looking at it.…||That’s certainly the wrong way of looking at it..||That’s certainly one way of looking at it|
|If you say so…||I’m afraid what you’re saying is the height of idiocy…..||If you say so…|
|I beg your pardon…||1. I didn’t hear you –
2. I apologise –
3. What you’re saying is making me absolutely livid
|I beg your pardon…|
|It could be worse…||It couldn’t possibly be any worse…||It’s not that bad…|
|Each to their own…||You’re wrong, but never mind…||Each to their own, that is your opinion and I respect it…|
|I’m just popping out for lunch, does anyone want anything?||I’m getting my own lunch now, please remain silent…||I’m just popping out for lunch, does anyone want anything?|
|No yeah, that’s very interesting…||You are boring me to death…||What you’re saying is interesting…|
|Just whenever you get a minute…||Now||When you get the time…|
|No harm done…..||You have caused complete and utter chaos…||It’s fine, no harm done…..|
|I’m sure it’ll be fine!..||I fully expect the situation to deteriorate rapidly…||I’m sure it’ll be fine!..|
|Sorry, I think you might have dropped something!..||You have definitely dropped that specific item……||Sorry, I think you might have dropped something, but I’m not sure…!..|