Posted by / Category Cultural Differences, London /

Right, it’s this time of the year: back to school and back to work. But here is a today’s treat: the latest chapter of Carine & Archie’s story. In this case, it’s more about Carine’s struggle to fit in…I hope that you can relate!

And in case you have missed it, here us the latest chapter:


Chapter 9 – My New British Boss

Speaking English


To apply for UK citizenship or permanent residency, which TWO things do you need:

A A UK bank account

B An ability to read and speak English

C An ability to speak and write Oxbridge English

D A good understanding of life in the UK

E An Oyster card

F A driving licence

E An above-average ability to drink beer without getting too drunk.


Official responses are B and D. Dont be fooled, C and E are life savers in the UK.


Life in the United Kingdom, (almost) official Practice Questions



February 2012


I arrive late at work to find out that we have a new boss. His name is James. He looks serious, and very British too. I can’t help noticing that he is wearing stripes. The stripes are definitively back this year. He introduces himself to everyone, and I like the fact that he doesn’t gather us for a pep talk on his first day.


That said, my good mood quickly fades away when one of my notes on the governance of one of our major projects comes back to me by email with the following words.

“ I don’t understand. Please write in proper English’





Perplexed, I have a look at my note and can’t spot any grammatical mistakes. I can’t see any typos either. I read the note several times without understanding what is wrong with it. Come on, I don’t want to sing my own praises but it is actually quite good! I don’t get it and feel stuck. What is wrong with this guy?

I shake my head in disbelief. There is an older colleague at the corner of the office. Her name is Clara. She is usually of good advice. Maybe, if I offer her a coffee she will help me. I go and talk to her.


“Clara, James has sent me back my note and I don’t understand what he means. Do you mind having a quick look at it to help me? I will buy you a coffee.”

“ I could do with a coffee right now. Give me your paper, I will have a look.”

I am relieved. We go downstairs and I start to worry when she silently reads my note and stay silent far longer than I expected. What is going on?

“What is it, Clara?”

“Where do I start, Carine? You need to speak proper English, my dear. Oxbridge English.”

“ What do you mean proper English? I have been living over here for 7 years. I do speak English.”

“ Well, Carine, there is a certain way to convey messages over here.”

“ Well, I have a British boyfriend and he seems to understand me perfectly well! What do you mean?”

Clara looks at me and asks, dead serious:

“ Carine, do you want me to help or not?”

This is more serious than I thought. I breathe profoundly and reply.

“ OK, OK, sorry, I will listen.”

This will me more painful than I thought.

“ Right. First of all, you need to use as many words as possible. Forget about bullet points. He wants full sentences with subject, verb and predicates. Don’t write ‘Risk of additional maintenance works’, but ‘Following a series of unexpected reliability incidents, additional modifications might have to be implemented by our local maintenance teams on all vehicles’. “

I dutifully write her suggested sentence on my note pad. She sighs.

“ How can I say this? You are far too direct. You need to learn to present your ideas in a better way. It is all about using more words and more British expressions. You simply need to say things the right way. ”

“What are you talking about, Clara?”

“ Simply put, Carine, this is part of your survival kit over here. It is all about appearing to make sense when you are, in fact, talking nonsense. Again, don’t underestimate such a vital skill. If you want to go with the flow, you will have to learn. “

“ How can I even do this?”

“For example, don’t say ‘Potential corruption issues with the actual government’. Replace it with ‘It is an open secret that the actual government has been plagued with rumours of corruption scandals.’ Much better. Everybody will understand.”

Right, I am starting to get this now. ‘Open secret’ sounds a bit funny but hey, in Rome, you do as the Romans, right? I still have a long way to go.

“ Now, you must never admit that you don’t know.”

“But what if I really don’t know? Surely I must have the honesty to admit that I don’t know”

“ Well, you will be told that it is your job to know.”

“Then what do I say?”

“Right. Let’s see. You have written ‘I don’t know whether the project manager was involved in purchasing the faulty supplies.’ That’s a very naïve statement. You need something that means one thing and its very opposite, depending on how you read it.”

“But it’s not possible: it’s either one way or the other, right?”

“Mark my words, Carine: your whole career in London depends on how well you can master such an art. Let’s see…How about: the preliminary investigation hasn’t highlighted any direct involvement of the project manager in the purchase of the faulty goods? Do you like it?”

I am speechless.

“ I will take your silence as a yes, then”.

She continues to speak whilst using a red pen to amend the note. My note seems to be bleeding.

“ If you are quizzed, buy time. Use double negatives such as ‘I don’t disagree’, say that it is a difficult subject, and you don’t want to jump to conclusions.”

“ Right, I think that you are getting the gist of this now. Let’s see…Oh, one more thing for today: understate, understate, understate. Boasting about a major achievement is looked down upon over here.”

“But what if the team has really done a good job?”

“ It doesn’t matter. Don’t say: the team managed to turn around the situation. Say: there are some signs of improvement in what we believe to be a difficult situation.”

Right, that was helpful –I couldn’t have invented it. It is the exact opposite than France: bullet-points notes are appreciated, because they are supposed to make you save time. Admitting that you don’t know is a sign of intellectual honesty as long as you don’t do it too often, and writing double edged-statements is seen as hypocritical and non-committal. I thank Clara for her help.

“ You are most welcome. It is actually quite refreshing to see someone as honest as you.”

Great, she thinks I am silly.

I spend a good part of the day revamping the note, which takes a lot longer than I initially anticipated. I end up sending in back to James with the words ‘Any better?’

I get a reply a couple of hours later.

‘Glad you understood what I meant. I think that we should give you Cart Blanche for a full audit of the project’.

What? Cart Blanche? Surely he means ‘Carte Blanche’ and wants to impress me with his French. Well, it didn’t work. Why would he do this?

It is an universal truth that, if you want to impress your interlocutors, you need to use French words and expressions when you write or speak. What do I do? Do I correct him? I don’t want to be the ‘snotty’ one.

Should I ask Clara for some advice? She is not at her desk. I will have to make an informed decision on my own on this one. I decide not to mention anything for the time being. Funny how he corrects my good English and I can’t say anything about his French.

Let it go, Carine, let it go, I tell myself.

When it is finally time to go home, James comes to me.

“ Are you going to organise this audit?”

Right. What do I say? A few hours ago, I would have just said ‘Yes, I am.’

I end up telling him

“Well, I sort of said I would…” 7 words when one would have sufficed. Not bad, he? Clara would be proud.

“Well, buon chans! “ he says.

It takes me a few seconds to understand that he means ‘Bonne chance!’, as in ‘Good luck’ in French.

Right. I must shut up. Don’t say anything, Carine. Don’t correct his pronunciation. Let him think that he speaks French.

I smile and wave goodbye.

Back home, I start to worry: I am not sure that I filled my permanent residency application using as many words as possible. Maybe they will hold it against me? I talk to Archie about my day. He doesn’t seem surprised at all. I sometimes wonder what would surprise him, actually. He even calmly explains to me that I need to google Corporate BS Generator in case I don’t know which words to use. He tells me it is a lifesaver for him. I decide to give it a try. Here is what I get:

  • Enablers influence the stakeholders. The enablers seamlessly foster dramatic organizing principles, while the timeline inspires the steering committee. The Chief Strategic Planning Officer accelerates a granular centerpiece. Pursuing this route will enable us to accelerate our portal. The community diligently achieves our scaling.

I love it. It will help me a lot. Archie might be British, but he is a pragmatic sort of guy, right?