Aug 022011

Many years ago a friend passed on a funny document, knowing how much I’d love it. (Thanks Roger!) I’m not sure of its origins but as I understood it, it originated at Royal Dutch Shell where it was circulated as a joke between Dutch employees who were often struggling to understand the indirect remarks of their British colleagues. I could be totally wrong about that though, so readers do please tell me if you know anything about its history.

It’s three lists: phrases British people say, what they really mean and what their Dutch colleagues understood. Needless to say, what’s said and what’s understood are very different things.

If it’s hard to read my much copied version, you might like to check out another version that turned up on the Economist blog a while ago.

When I’ve shown it to students, I’ve often wondered if it would work better as a video exercise, so they could hear the tone of voice and see the accompanying body language. So when I get time and can find a willing British English speaker, I’ll have a stab at making a video. So watch this space and please tell me if you think your students might find it amusing. Also, do you think Americans would be as indirect?

 Posted by at 8:25 pm

  9 Responses to “British indirectness through Dutch eyes”

  1. Your chart reminds me of a similar chart that I saw just yesterday. Someone was asking “In what ways is it impolite to say no in Japan?” The top answer included a humorous chart of indirect refusals and their “translations” into American English.

  2. Oh what a terrific link. Thank you, Aaron! I love that chart with Japanese ways of saying ‘no’.

  3. “With respect”, “not bad”, and “by the way” are probably okay in normal American conversations, but most of them reek of management speak. Using them too often in everyday conversation would make you sound condescending.

    On another note, I was under the impression that “quite” was used as more of an understatement than an overstatement. Am I mistaken?

  4. Hi Trent! Yes, the phrases definitely evoke the feeling of a meeting with a pain of a boss, don’t they?
    There are some really interesting differences between British and American uses of ‘quite’. Here’s a link to a post I did over at the Macmillan dictionary blog about it.
    Re understatement, I think that might be quite complex too. My theory is that Americans tend to use ‘quite’ to understate negative features, while Brits tend to use it to understate positive ones.

  5. Yes, I know many of these, such as “pretty good/not bad” and warnings about the meaninglessness of invitations are given to Japanese businesspeople sometimes. Others, such as “it is a pity…” sound rather British, but maybe there are other equivalents (“it’s too bad” etc.) that people (perhaps not Japanese) are warned about.

    (Actually, my husband–an American from a more Eastern US background–and I had a culture clash that I may have mentioned before. Both “pretty good” and “not bad” are faint praise in my family, but they’re equally positive-positive in his family. When he called my cooking “pretty good” etc. in the first couple of years, it caused … problems!)

  6. Lovely to hear from you Clarissa and loved your ‘pretty good’ cooking example. Ha! It brings the expression ‘damning with faint praise’to life.
    I’ve mentioned this before, but one of my (British) friends had an American boyfriend who told her she was ‘quite pretty’ on their first date. He was lucky to get a second one.

  7. Sounds a bit like a normal conversation between me (British) and my wife (German):-)

  8. Hi Vickie:
    Good that you brought this up. I just finished reading Kay Fox’s “Watching the English.” Enjoyable? Yes, but throughout the book I kept saying to myself, “But we do the same thing here!” I know that I’ve often gotten myself in trouble at work or socially, because of my “gift” for understatement; unfortunately, I don’t think I can change now, and I’m not at all certain I want to. My biggest argument against Fox’s thesis is not that she’s wrong about the English – I think she’s quite right – but that the trait exists here as well, and in many other languages and cultures. I spent three years in France, and I can attest that the French use it all the time, although there it might be better described as diffidence.

  9. Oh great to hear from you, Marc. Yes, I wonder if understatement might best describe ways many individuals behave, rather than cultures.
    It’s often entangled with humour, of course, which again, can be cultural but also very idiosyncractic.

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