Posted by / Category Cultural Differences, London /

Count on my to brush up your English skills. You might think that because you were taught to speak English at school or at work you will be fine, but you couldn’t be more wrong. The British are very precise about how things must be said. Here are a few tricks that will go a long way to gain a better understanding of what the British really mean and how to make sure that they understand you.

– Use as many works as possible

A simple ‘yes’ in response to a question will betray the fact that you are not familiar with the way people talk over here. You need to say instead ‘Well, I sort of said I would’. Or ‘yes, I hear what you say’. Keep the conversation going at any cost.

In the same vein, never say no. Except in a life or death situation, of course. ‘No’ is much too direct. It closes the debate and the British love to talk. Instead, you can always buy time by saying ‘this is an interesting point of view, isn’t it?’. OK, let’s practise now. Let’s suppose that someone tells you: ‘boys and girls need to be educated separately because they learn in different ways’. If, like me, you feel strongly that this is a backwards idea coming straight from the Middle Ages, don’t say so. Bite your tongue. Breathe. Instead, say something like ‘This is an interesting point of view. That said, I really enjoyed being educated with boys during my childhood’. Do you see the difference?

– Pay attention to what is NOT said:

You need to question everything you are told. ‘Is this school any good?’ I asked one of my friends. Oh yes, it is a good school, she said, very sporty. What she meant of course, was that they were not very good academically.  But how could I have guessed it?

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– How a sentence can mean one thing and its complete opposite:

One day, I was reading about what seemed to be a clear-cut corruption case in one of the leading newspapers.  But the journalist had concluded that:

“There [was] no clear evidence of corruption.”

On the face of it, it is a simple sentence. But, as you will find out, appearances can be deceptive. What does this sentence mean? Does it mean that the guy hadn’t done anything wrong? Or does this mean that there was unclear evidence of corruption -in which case he actually had done something wrong.  The English language had allowed the journalist to keep all options open, and that’s exactly what he had done. Why would he have taken a position? No need to, after all. It is much easier not to make a decision, right?

The same goes with another expression that the British will keep saying at every possible opportunity:

“I don’t disagree”.

This one still baffles me. Technically, if your acquaintance doesn’t disagree then he/she must agree. But then, he/she has chosen not to simply say that he/she agrees. Why? Probably because, in fact, he/she doesn’t really agree -see, one thing and its opposite again…I have come to the conclusion that, in fact, the person you are talking to doesn’t really care about what you are saying, probably disagrees, and is looking for an easy escape. That said, don’t ask for any clarification unless you have a couple of hours to spare.

– Do not take some expressions too literally

 When I was told by a British colleague that we should touch base the week after, I panicked.  When I found out that touching base had nothing to do with, actually, touching your base (or anyone else’s) I couldn’t help being relieved!

The same goes for lots of idioms and expressions like getting your knickers in a twist, belt and braces, and when the actress talks to the bishop, there might be, in fact, no actress and no bishop. Now you are warned.

Likewise, when you are being called ‘Darling’, ‘Sweetheart’, ‘Honey’ or even ‘Pumpkin’, don’t worry. They don’t really mean it. Well, most of the time. One day, a cab driver, right after calling me ‘Love’ asked me whether I wanted him to keep me company that night. I politely declined, thinking that it was another British thing With hindsight, I am not so sure. I suppose that we all have to learn.

– Making sense when you are talking non-sense

 Don’t underestimate such a vital skill. If you want to go with the flow, you will have to learn.

When I moved to this country here is the sort of things that I would have said:

–          Where are the children? It is very quiet in here;

–          I don’t speak English very well;

–          The proposal was rejected;

–          She is divorced but doesn’t want anyone to know;

–          I went to the concert on my own;

–          I disagree;

–          I don’t understand.

Fatal mistakes. Everybody noticed that I hadn’t been brought up in Britain, despite the fact that my English was of course grammatically correct. Here is what I should have said:

–          Where are the kids? I thought it seemed a bit quiet!

–          I am an ‘advanced beginner’ in English;

–          The proposal was rejected in its entirety but there were some good points

–          Her divorce is an open secret;

–          I went on my own to a very popular concert;

–          Let’s agree to disagree;

–          It’s a bit opaque.

As you may guess, it was, and still is, a steep learning curve. I am not sure that I will ever get there. This is because my brain is wired in a different way. I have to learn to think and speak in a new way. It is hard work. It is all about being positive and wanting to make an impression, and I was brought up to be discreet and direct. No wonder I am struggling.

– Understanding what the British mean

The meaning of some words can deceptive over here. Before I draw any conclusions as to what somebody really means, I have to take a step back and analyse how things were said, when, and why. And, despite my best efforts, sometimes I still don’t get it. I’m ashamed to admit it: I have given up more than once. Sad but true.

Let me give you an example. A friend of mine has just had a baby and she is a bit overweight. She is not bothered by it at all and was even telling me the other day: “People are so nice! They all say I look well”.

That’s when it dawned on me. Over here, when you are told that you look “well”, it means, more often than not, that you are fat, or that you have put on weight. That’s what I was told after my pregnancies too. “Oh! You look well!” I did indeed look well. All too ‘well’, to be honest. It all makes sense now. How come I hadn’t noticed before? Why hadn’t anyone told me?

If you look really well (as in, not fat), then people will tell you that you look great or even “amazing”. Or they won’t say anything at all because they might be a bit jealous.

I have now established that “well” means “fat”, most of the time. That said, if you don’t know what to say to someone you haven’t seen for a long time, you can always say “Hi! You look well.” It doesn’t mean much and is supposed to make the other person happy. In short, you are just being polite. It is all a question of circumstances.

Likewise, when something is ‘interesting’, it means that it is complete crap.

And if you are told that you ‘almost’ did something, it means that you are not there yet at all. Don’t worry, I told you it is a steep learning curve. And on the plus side, it can be fun to understand all the subtle nuances of the British language. Frankly, I am not there yet and I don’t think I ever will..

  • “I am an ‘advanced beginner’ in English;”… “I don’t disagree”… OMG! How they make things so complicated! Being polite is good but making effort all the time to say things that you don’t mean is really difficult. But you seem to be learning well… I mean it. 🙂 This is an insightful post for me. Thanks for the post, Muriel.

    • Glad you like it! And I am still learning. Even after 10 years. I am not sure I will ever get there…