Despite being together for 8 memorable years, there are times when I find myself scratching my head in the corner of the room pondering over what Daniel has said. This is precisely why the article published by the Daily Mail caught my attention. I have not spent a long time in Britain; only two years. I found it hard to understand the Brits to the point of frustration. Generally, they come across as prim and proper and polite. These are not bad traits. However for a girl in a foreign land who was desperate to make friends and start anew, those positive traits were seen differently. Many came across as pretentious, insincere and superficial. In other words, they were “hi-bye” friends.
After reading the article, I decided to conduct my own research on what the Brits really mean and how well foreigners understand them. To all social scientists reading this, I admit that my research model will fail to meet your expectations. This is a blog; this isn’t where I write academic papers with proper footnotes and citation. Thankfully, I have friends living in different corners of the world who were very willing to help me out without me pointing a gun at their heads. I gave them a list of phrases that the Brits say and asked them to write what they understand them to mean.
What really interests me were the German responses. They aren’t native English speakers however, my friends have all lived abroad and speak English at a native level. They also use English regularly for business purposes. When my German friend submitted the survey to me, she said, “Yoyo, I hope my responses aren’t too German!” We now know for sure that this girl is a true-blue German babe. Germans are often perceived as rude for they are blunt. However, this very characteristic of theirs makes it easy for me to get along with them and work with them. You basically know what you’re getting with a German. I actually asked someone at work if I can take a German client’s praise at face value!
I used to be offended when people tell me “Oh, you’ve got to come round for dinner!” and it never happened. Even if we’ve not set a date and time, my friends and I are never hesitant to say “Hey, thought you were inviting me over? When will it be?” It caught me by surprise that generally, people say it out of politeness.
Also, how is “Quite good” NOT “quite good” but instead means “Not that great”? I’ve been a victim of “I only have a few minor comments,” and I swear I was in the meeting for the entire morning, with my report torn to bits and pieces. This phrase is commonly used in Singapore too, especially by my teaching friends, however when I use it I tend to say “I have a few/ some comments to make”. This doesn’t give the listener an impression that the changes are small or big. Or at the very least, I don’t give a false impression of how minor my comments are.
My Japanese friend who has a very high level of English proficiency, managed to understand what the Brits really mean. It made me wonder if it’s because the Japanese has a high context culture? Although I’m ethnically Chinese, I’ve always been more direct with my likes and dislikes, and opinionated. When that side of me sneaked out on the rare occasions in the UK, my ex-colleague who’s British would laugh her head off in disbelief.
One frustrating phrase is “I’ll bear it in mind”. Countless times, many Brits had failed to deliver after conveniently telling me that they “will bear it in mind”. Why tell me you’ll remember to do something but NEVER do it? That then created the impression that they weren’t trustworthy and simply all talk but no actions. But now I know. They had never intended to remember my point to begin with.
I did wonder why the Brits bother saying things in a polite manner (usually in the opposite) since they themselves are well aware of the hidden meanings. Then I realised, the very culture that I spent more than 4 years of my life studying, the Japanese, is also pretty similar. In Asian culture, it’s about “face”, “honour” and “harmony” (just some examples). So what’s the reason behind the excessive British politeness?
- The 4 Stages of Culture Shock (chroniclesofyoyo.com)
- Translating Brit Speak (thebristolepistles.wordpress.com)