This article on Decoding British English was written by Victoria Rennoldson, founder of Perfect Cuppa English, & was first featured by Welcome Home London, a tailor-made London relocation service with an exclusive video previewing service & dedicated app.
The nuances of British English are not obvious and a little confusing, even if you have lived in other English-speaking countries previously. Although, obviously everybody is an individual, there are typical language rituals for British English & I will share some top tips for areas of misunderstanding & miscommunication to help you navigate your new British life and decode British English!
British Small Talk
So, this seems like an innocent topic, but it can lead to a surprising reaction. When somebody asks, “How are you?”, we have a fairly codified way of replying, which is “Fine, how are you?”.
This is always true, even if you feel dreadful and have had a terrible day. However, if it is a really good friend asking, then it might be allowable to say, “A bit under the weather” but usually we do not go into any detail, unless your friend asks for it. The British do not like oversharing & can be quite reserved and private, avoiding personal discussions, especially about our problems with people we do not know well.
British Weather Talk
Top fact: Almost 40% British people have talked about the weather in the last hour! Weather is like a social glue which starts any conversation, fills awkward pauses and a common ground for us to talk about. We love talking weather & it is the best way to start a conversation, whether we have just met or known each other all our lives. Why is that? Again, British people tend to avoid too many personal details & it can take time to build relationships and get to know people.
Our weather often makes the headlines, even though our weather is not that extreme. Whether it is predicting heavy snow or an extreme heatwave (both unusual), it is a good topic to discuss and then eventually complain about, especially if it lasts more than 24 hours.
It is also a codified language ritual with its own sentence structure. Notice how we offer a weather fact (a bit warm), modifying the adjective so it is not too extreme (a bit) and then finish with a question tag to build a connection (isn’t it?).
It is a cliché, but very much based on truth, that we love the word sorry and it really does cover a huge range of meanings and emotions. For example: getting attention, temporary (and sometimes deliberate) deafness when we hear something we do not like, passive aggressive responses, trying to get past somebody on the street, confusion, embarrassment, interrupting, preventing interruptions. It is a universal word which we use out of politeness (on the surface at least) and sometimes you may even hear several “sorrys” in one sentence, when a British person is feeling particularly embarrassed or awkward.
British Disagreeing Style
It can be hard sometimes to get a direct answer when asking a British person for their opinion, although this does depend on the individual. Usually the person wants to avoid negative feedback or open disagreement, as the British tend to feel that criticising the idea is making it personal. It can be confusing, if you are not used to the style & you may mistakenly hear a positive message, rather than realising the negative points are the parts to pay attention to. We tend to respond in a few set ways, and the tone of voice will indicate what the real opinion is. For example:
- Interesting (said slowly and thoughtfully)
- Quite good (with the stress on the first word, usually said slowly)
- Not bad (with the stress on the second word, usually said slowly, notice the double negative)
However, please note that all the phrases above can be said in a rising, upbeat way and have completely the opposite meaning, i.e. we like it! So, it is really important to listen to the tone of voice.
Usually after all these phrases there will be a pause before you hear the real opinion: “But…..” or “However……”.
Also watch out for feedback & requests framed as questions or gentle suggestions- they may be intended to give you direction & are not necessarily optional!
- Can I make a suggestion? Have you thought about? (asking permission to give negative feedback)
- This is just my view (but I require you to listen to it)
- Can I come back to you? (delaying feedback & then sending it via email)
Clearly, these communication styles are true for some British people, in certain situations, but the point is to make sure you are always clear on what is being said. If you are uncertain about the true intended feeling or meaning, then clarify by summarising & rephrasing regularly in the conversation & it can be a good idea to do this afterwards by email as well.
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