Do the British mean what they say?

By on June 9, 2011

A Spanish friend recently sent me the link to an article published online.  This “guide” explains to the rest of Europe what British people really mean when they say certain things, and what others understand by what has been said.

For example, according to this article, when a British person says “You must come to dinner”, the real meaning is “It’s not an invitation, I’m just being polite”, whilst the listener will think “I will get an invitation soon”.  Obviously, this is an extreme generalisation, but I have to admit, it does ring some bells.  If you accidentally bump into someone and they say “we must do lunch” or “we must get a coffee one day”, chances are you won’t set eyes on them again until you accidentally bump into them again…

Obviously this does not mean that all British people are the same, and this could potentially give the impression that we are an insincere nationality.  I disagree with this, I think we generally are trying to be so polite that sometimes the message we give differs from what we actually mean.  Another example given in the guide is “Could we consider some other options”, meaning “I don’t like your idea”, and taken to mean “They have not yet decided”.  Whilst attempting to not insult the other party, by suggesting considering other options rather than directly attacking their idea, we give the impression that we are still as yet undecided or have not formed an opinion, which may not quite be the case.

This “translation guide” raises the point that it is not just the language itself that can create a barrier between speakers of different tongues.  Whilst somebody may understand perfectly well what has been said in English, if they are unaware the depth to which we can be courteous, they can take a completely different meaning from a sentence to the one that was intended by the speaker.

How do British people learn these nuances?  Do children receive explanations?  Do we learn from our mistakes?  Furthermore, does this trait cause problems in an international business environment?  Are thoughts, ideas and proposals misconstrued through miscommunication?  Are other nationalities perceived to be blunt by British people?  Are British people seen to be overly polite, or insincere?  Or is it an endearing trait?  Answers on a postcard to the UK please!


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Dich Vu Nail…

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Dich Vu Nail on Feb 11 12 at 3:59 am

The examples you stated in your blog definitely apply in some other countries too, so it’s not specific to UK. One interesting issue I ran accross is saying “it’s ok” in the states. While I was certain I was saying that I like the idea, “it’s ok” obviously sends a message “i don’t really like that” to many.

Informa Studio on Jun 09, 2011 at 9:11 am

It’s true that this happens in other countries too. I think that in the US they give praise very effusively, so if you like something you would say “That’s awesome” or “amazing” rather than “OK”, which can mean the same as “Not bad” – a popular phrase in the UK that doesn’t really mean a lot.

admin on Jun 09, 2011 at 9:44 am

As an American, if someone said “it’s ok” to me, I would take it to mean that “it” was acceptable, but not very good.

An example:
Jennifer: So, how do you like the dinner I made you?
Bob: It’s ok.

I would interpret this as “your dinner is edible, but not very nice and I would rather go to McDonald’s” or, if said with a higher pitch at the end: “I’m surprised that your dinner is edible; I didn’t think that you could cook…but it’s still not that great.”

Jennifer Rodgers on Jun 09, 2011 at 10:00 am

Born here and grew up up here. Lets face it and be honest, it has nothing to do with genuine courtesy, its a form of getting by without being challenged, and as such is cowardly.
Its not kind,because it sets up expectations. Its counterproductive because it can engender anger.
At base it is lying-and on some level we all recognise it. It’s a vicious circle, we surpress everything thats true and honest and stew over unexpressed feelings. Come Friday night we collectively get drunker than pretty much any other nation and spew and vent our feelings all over the streets!

don on Jun 20, 2011 at 12:06 am

Wow – bit of harsh truth there, Don! But sadly it’s true of one particular group of Brits. We do tend to avoid confrontation wherever possible, except perhaps during those binge-drinking episodes you mention.

I guess there are other stereotypes of other nations that do ring true, but don’t apply to everyone – such as the reputation of Southern Europeans to be impassioned and very expressive about their feelings and opinions.

admin on Jun 20, 2011 at 10:22 am

Translations is very important it is a way to communicate with other people, specially those people that has a different dialect, translators well be the frontliners to communicate with them, and to have communication.

joy@translation on Jun 21, 2011 at 6:49 am

We are a bunch of volunteers and opening a new scheme in our community. Your web site offered us with useful information to paintings on. You have performed a formidable process and our whole community will be thankful to you.

learn to speak spanish easily on Dec 04, 2011 at 12:17 am

I came across this article while trying to find a way of explaining to a French company why their letter of recommendation which seemed excellent on the face of it would have basically dammed me too ‘the deepest pits of hell’ to any English company, so along with my explanation to them which took me a little while to figure out I sent this link.

As a Brit, the old style to which the reference material for the most part is very accurate, it should however it should be noted that there are some instances where this could be misleading.

Take the infamous ‘quite good’ while in normal Brit based circumstances this would mean to be barley acceptable but if said ‘this is quite good’ that would normally mean ‘it is very good indeed’; It could also mean ‘diabolically bad’ depending on the tone and context that it is used in.

British is like any other language, you have the spoken written documented side of it then you have the historical lived through cultural side of it, and that can change greatly from region to region or in Scotland’s case town to town, this would be very difficult explain to a ‘cultural visitor’ for lack of a better way of putting it.

But all in all very impressed, ‘I never really majored’ in English which means ‘I’m crap’ however I really appreciate the effort that been put into this small article / info piece, I shall use it as a reference from now on where applicable.

Peter Atkin on Mar 27, 2012 at 8:19 pm

It is quite frustrating. I have lived in the UK for 5 years now, and both my husband and I have major communication barriers with the Brits. It is very frustrating when people are not direct. I feel it wastes time, but I do understand that it is a cultural difference. I make it a point to be very up front about it when first meeting someone. Just put it out there. I find this helps relieve frustrations on both sides as the other party knows they must communicate differently with me, and they understand that I am not trying to be rude when I directly communicate what I need and want.

Sam on May 30, 2012 at 10:41 am

Wow I could not agree more with the point of this article: British people by and large are insincere and say things they don’t really mean. I HATE IT!!!!! I have good British friends who continually say, for example “oh you’re like family to us, we love you, anytime you want to pop over for a visit you’re more than welcome blah blah blah. But its ALL BULLSHIT: how do I know this? This very same person will not even give me her Skype contact info, nor her phone number for simple SMS. Further, friendly emails, my way of keeping in touch since I live in Europe are ALWAYS IGNORED, never replied to. To me these are sure fire signs that she can’t be bothered, and certainly doesn’t want to be friends more.

I’m American and I really hate the British for always saying things they don’t really mean. Its like the old saying goes: easier said than done: its so easy to say “oh please visit anytime”, or “we love you like familiy”—but what good is this bullshit if this same person never calls, never Skypes, never replies to emails?

To be so insincere, and also the indirectness: I hate it! Just awful.

Steve on Mar 28, 2013 at 12:53 pm

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