Help! What The British Say vs. What They Really Mean

Emma Buckby

16 Mar 2016

A Guardian newspaper survey stated that 47% of Britons are “somewhat” proud to be British.  The word “somewhat” is a great example of British understatement and prompted us to put together some key tips to help you understand the difference between what a British person says and what they really mean.

What a British Person Really Means

British humour is based on understatement

The surprise at this survey prompted some linguists to look at the wording of the question posed to respondents to see if this had influenced the results.  They immediately highlighted the use of a very peculiar nuance in English and British culture.

As many people know, British humour is based on understatement, British self-identity on self-deprecation and the British language is renowned for its ambiguity.

How to figure out the Brits

A report that is “quite good” can be outstandingly excellent or disastrously poor

The British are outwardly humble, if perhaps a little smug on the inside.  Achievements are to be cherished internally, referred to only subtly or indirectly, rather than trumpeted in what is considered an American style.

Giving direct feedback, good or bad, is “terribly” difficult, and so “quite good” is an ideal way of avoiding that confrontation or excessive praise.

A report that is “quite good” can be outstandingly excellent or disastrously poor (and almost anything between those extremes) all dependent on the intonation, tone and stress – in an email you may have to seek clarification!

What British mean when they use these expressions

What British mean when they use these expressions

 

Deciphering rather than understanding

Having a “rather good” time at the weekend implies that you had an excellent time

The Guardian article refers to Chaucer’s first use of “somewhat” as a possible jibe at the less modest Dante – Chaucer hopes Apollo will find his work “sumwhat agreeable”.

To describe a challenge as “somewhat difficult” potentially means that it will never be overcome.  Having a “rather good” time at the weekend implies that you had an excellent time, hinting at something more to be revealed.

All fun and games

The British enjoy qualifying descriptions with these ambiguities, allowing insiders to have privileged access to specific meaning denied to those on the outside.

This, coupled with irony, is one of the things that makes British English particularly closed to the World.

The Americans may use sporting idioms and the Australians have developed additional vocabulary, but once you learn a little of the sport or a little about “barbies” (hint – not a doll!) you can work out what is meant.  British English is spoken directly – with an indirect meaning.

So how do you work it out? 

Unfortunately there is no easy rule.

“Quite”, “somewhat”, “rather” are fundamentally English ways of avoiding giving confrontational opinions

You need to ask follow up questions, being aware of the context, and looking for the non-verbal clues. Alarm bells should ring every time you hear one of these ambiguous phrases – it is usually a sign that there is a hidden message you need to be aware of.

Some international workers in the UK feel that they are not always given credit for their good work – possibly they have been told that their work is “quite good”!

“Quite”, “somewhat”, “rather” are fundamentally English ways of avoiding giving confrontational opinions.

Read the body language

The British signal intended meaning with very subtle, non-verbal clues – a change in intonation, a twinkle in the eye, a shrug of the shoulders, a faint smile – but it is left to the hearer to interpret what they want to understand. It takes time to decipher the difference between what a British person says and what a British person means.

With the right intonation, asking Britons if they are “quite proud” of being British would make perfect sense, and possibly get a more accurate reflection of national feeling!



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