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Interpreting the truth behind British niceties

Interpreting the truth behind British niceties

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From not bad to quite good, how trait of being polite stops us from saying what we really mean.

Ever been told by a new neighbour ‘You must come for dinner’ then spent weeks waiting for a follow-up invitation that never arrives?

Or been thrilled when the boss said he’d bear your ‘very interesting’ idea in mind and been surprised when it was never mentioned again.

Then you’ve been victim of the uniquely British trait of being too prim and polite to say what we really mean. And if it can be baffling for us, imagine what it must be like for foreigners who take our every word at face value.

Now there’s help in the form of a “translation” table which has become a huge hit on the internet.

It reveals that when a British person begins a sentence ‘With the greatest respect…’, they’re really saying ‘I think you are an idiot.’

‘I hear what you say’ means ‘I disagree and do not want to discuss it further’ while ‘That is a very brave proposal’ translates as ‘You are insane’.

The table, which has been posted on numerous internet blogs, has received thousands of comments acknowledging that it’s spot on – from foreigners and Britons alike.

New York-based Joanne Goddard who writes a blog called A Cup of Jo, says her English father often left her baffled.

‘When we were in high school, my sister asked him if she could drive to Detroit with her boyfriend to see a band. He said, “I’d rather you not.” She went anyway. When he got mad later, she was confused: “But you never said I couldn’t go”.’

The author of the table is a mystery, although some say it was drawn up a few years ago by a Dutch firm as a light-hearted help for executives working in the UK. It has since been added to.

Internet posters have been busy coming up with their own translations. Pam Burton wrote that ‘Leave it with me’ means ‘Hell will freeze over before you see a solution to this problem’.

Another said ‘When you get a minute’ means ‘Do this immediately’ while a third says ‘Let’s keep in touch’ tends to mean ‘I never want to see or hear from you again’.

And Peter Atkin wrote: ‘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 basically have damned me to the deepest pit of hell to any English company.’

At the end of the day, it all comes down to politeness and avoiding confrontation, which can lead to awkward and uncomfortable situations. Needless to say not every single British person uses this communication style. The British are the masters of understatement, and whether this communication style annoys or intrigues you, it is one of those cultural quirks that make life abroad just a little bit more challenging.

Simple binary comparisons of language without context like this can foster unbalanced opinions which can lead to or reinforce resentment and things like that. The final point is that despite our communication style, we’re still just as fair-minded, honest, trustworthy, narrow minded, dishonest and untrustworthy as anybody else! Don’t jump to conclusions and never let cultural differences cause you to make fast judgements about people without seeing the whole picture!

“The British are too polite to be honest, whereas the Germans are too honest to be polite.”

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