Apr 022010

Fellow blogger Sputnik made me chuckle when he stopped by the other day and mentioned it was minus 40 in Siberia, so ‘a bit nippy’. Why yes, that might make someone want to pop on another bar of their electric heater.

Understatement is harder to come by in America than the UK and I confess I’m missing it a bit. There’s plenty of sarcasm here – in the BrE sense. (Very briefly, BrE = the opposite of what you mean, AmE = nasty or unkind – see here and here for more on that difference)

But understatement is in short supply in America, or maybe I’m just used to getting large doses. The anthropologist Kate Fox says:

“The English are rightly renowned for their use of understatement, not because we invented it or because we do it better than anyone else, but because we do it so much. (Well maybe we do it a little bit better – if only because we get so much practice at it.)”

From: Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour

Kate Fox also has some lovely examples that I’ve turned into a puzzle, so you can test your understatement skills by matching them up to her English descriptions. (Ever the teacher, eh? Answers at the bottom)

1 A debilitating and painful chronic illness a Not very clever
2 A truly horrific experience b Not very friendly
3 A sight of breathtaking beauty c A bit of a nuisance
4 An outstanding performance or achievement d Well, not exactly what I would have chosen
5 An act of abominable cruelty e Nice
6 An unforgivably stupid misjudgment f A bit too hot for my taste
7 The Sahara desert g Quite pretty
8 Any exceptionally delightful object, person or event h Not bad

So why all this understatement in BrE? Is it part of a stiff upper lip thing, I wonder. There was a neat post that did its round of the internet after the horrific London bombings a few years ago that expressed that sentiment rather neatly:

“The British are feeling the pinch in relation to recent terrorist bombings and threats to destroy nightclubs and airports, and therefore have raised their security level from ‘Miffed’ to ‘Peeved.’ Soon, though, security levels may be raised yet again to ‘Irritated’ or even ‘A Bit Cross.’ Brits have not been ‘A Bit Cross’ since the Blitz in 1940 when tea supplies all but ran out.”

Gosh, we don’t make it easy for other folks to take us seriously, do we?  Does anyone have more examples to share?

Answers: 1.c,  2.d,  3.g,  4.h, 5.b,  6.a,  7.f,  8.e

Thanks for the inspiration Sputnik

 Posted by at 5:43 am

  20 Responses to “British understatement”

  1. I love Kate Fox’s book! (or should I say I thought it was alright?). My wife enjoyed it too, until she finished it and realised how lower middle class I am….

    George Mikes book ‘How to be an Alien’ was supposed to be a scathing attack on the British, but it was received as ‘rather amusing’.

    We want to be seen this way, don’t we? On a serious note, it seems that we are trying to be more emotive these days but we are terrible at it and end up punching each other or going into meltdown (see ‘People’s Princess debacle)

  2. There’s a famous story from the Korean war where a British general leading a group of 600 men were under attack from something like 10,000 Chinese soldiers, and reported to the American Commander that the situation was “a bit sticky” – meaning of course that he got no reinforcements.

  3. Found it:

    On Tuesday afternoon, an American, Maj-Gen Robert H Soule, asked the British brigadier, Thomas Brodie: “How are the Glosters doing?” The brigadier, schooled in British understatement, replied: “A bit sticky, things are pretty sticky down there.” To American ears, this did not sound too desperate

    from here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1316777/The-day-650-Glosters-faced-10000-Chinese.html

  4. Great post Vicki.

    Despite the fact that my teenage kids are not British they seem to have mastered sarcasm and understatement reasonably well.

    Each time I give out any fatherly words of wisdom their inevitable reply is “indubitably Daddy”.

    And when they ask for “a couple of minutes” help with their homework, what they actually mean is that I should cancel any plans I may have had for the rest of the evening.

  5. Very funny – well, to a Brit anyway. I suspect it must be irritating to most other nationalities: why can’t they say what they mean, or, at the very least, mean what they say? In turn that reminds me of the culture clash between Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger in Shadowlands – it’s what makes the world a richer place.

  6. Darren,

    How we want to be perceived. Is a really pertinent question to this. A lot of the understatement seems to be about not making a fuss about the trying stuff, so is a stiff upper lip part of a social identity that we aspire to – a community we want to be part of?

    I love that Kate Fox book too. Despite taking courses in sociolinguistics, pragmatics, conversational analysis, when I moved here, it took me about two years to twig that I’d moved from ‘negative’ to ‘positive’ politeness. Duh! All this weird stuff was happening and I didn’t put two together – two versions of the same language operating to different social rules.

    I fumbled around for several more years wondering about it, but there didn’t seem to be anything in the BrE and AmE literature on it (though quite possibly I was reading the wrong stuff). Then my daughter sent me “Watching the English” (Thanks Georgie!) There on p147 was ”The English are a predominantly negative-politeness culture, while Americans, for example, tend to favour the more warm, inclusive ‘positive politeness’ mode.” I wasn’t going mad. That felt good.

    I hadn’t realized that the George Mikes book was expected to attack – amazing! But perfectly understandable if you look at it from a ‘positive politeness’ frame.

    Now as for the People’s princess.. I think you might have inspired a future posting. Thank you!

  7. Oh Andy, what great story and link! Thank you so much for this!
    I’ve run it by some ‘merican’s tonight who have guffawed in amazement. How could we be so opaque? But then, how could they have been so opaque not to realize?

  8. Evan, Ha! I’ve met your kids and they speak better English than me.

  9. Sputnik,
    Irritating? Yes, or damned infuriating. In some ways I wonder if we might be inviting the world join us living in a sea of ambiguity when teach BrE.
    I haven’t seen Shadowlands and have just ordered it from Netflix. Sounds right up my street. Like I said, I do miss understatement …Thank you!.

  10. Regarding Evan’s children asking for “a couple of minutes help with their homework” – does that belong to the category of the British understatement?
    Isn’t it a bit more of a technique one trains to manipulate a potential victim when necessary, in this case the father? Speaking for myself, I may not have developed the skill of the British understatement very well, but I think I can manage to get “a couple of minutes help” with an issue, when it’s necessary.

  11. Hi Joan

    Yes I think you’re probably right. They are deliberately understating what they are asking for, but all children are experts at this sort of “manipulation of the victim” – a very accurate description 🙂

  12. […] the Understatement which makes a situation seem much less serious or important than it actually is. British humour often makes use of the […]

  13. I know I’m over a year late to the discussion, but does anyone else find that other cultures (including Americans) can seem a little dramatic at times? As if EVERYTHING is a big deal. After reading this, I’m thinking that our habitual use of understatement might be to blame for that perception. We tend to find dramatic displays a bit distasteful or weak, so we usually avoid them.

  14. Late or not, I’m delighted to hear from you Chris. You’ve reminded me of a phenomena I noticed a lot when I first moved to the US. (And it always strikes me when I come back from a trip too.) American newscasters sound excited. Some of it is general perkiness I think – higher levels of perk seem to be appreciated over here – but there are different levels of excitablity that comes out in the intonation too. Small stories, minor events that would be matter of fact issues in the UK sound like they are making newscasters hop up and down with glee over here.
    I noticed something similar with audio recordings for my books too which folks can read about here: https://www.merican.vickihollett.com/?p=633

  15. Hello Vicki

    I have just come across your website and am giggling at many of your amusing observations.

    Also, I am Kate Fox – author of Watching the English – and would like to thank you very much for all the references to my book, and for all your kind comments.

    Sorry – this is off-topic, I know, but I happened to be on this page when it occurred to me that I should thank you.

  16. Oh wow! The Kate Fox! I’m tickled pink and thrilled to meet you Thank you so much for your kind words and taking the time to say hello. As you must have gathered, I’m a huge fan of Watching the English – as are many other folks here. You’ve made my day.

  17. I lived in Minnesota–middle of the U.S., up by the Canadian border–for 40 years, and they’ve got understatement down to a fine art. In “How to Talk Minnesotan,” Howard Mohr gave an example of someone using a welding torch on a car’s gas (that’d be petrol) tank. What would the Minnesotan say? “Most fellas wouldn’t want to do that.”

  18. Oh a lovely example! Great to meet you Ellen and thanks for that.

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