Jun 092010
I'm thrilled to welcome a star of the ELT blog world as my guest. She's one of the busiest teachers and bloggers I know with her own fantastic site at Kalinago English, so I really appreciate Karenne Sylvester making time to share her insights on a curious British practice in this post. Without ado, over to Karenne.

British Understatedness

As someone who is British-Grenadian but grew up in Antigua and America and then lived all over the world, I should really have the cross-cultural skills and understanding to get the Brits… yet there’s one particular area of British communication which has always given me pause and been most confusing.

It’s the way that the British undersell themselves.

An example:

The Interview

A top British expert applies for a job within an international IT company. Given that he has an outstanding e-portfolio, he snags an interview. However, when asked about particular skills core to this new job, he looks down, hair flopping à la Hugh Grant as he smiles ruefully and says “Oh no, not really”.

IMG_6457 "Hugh Grant" by SpreePiX - Berlin.A shy grin peeks out from under bushy eyebrows.  He shrugs “I’m really just not that good at…”

The interviewer, if worth his salt, must now do a hasty translation given the interviewee’s genuinely amazing list of skills and talents listed on the resumé belying his statement.

Does “I’m just not that good at…” mean:

1. He’s bad at his job and the details listed regarding his work are, in fact, a lie?

2. He has zero self-esteem and therefore

   a) he will be difficult to work with.

   b) he will need to be constantly complimented (and that’s a lot of work).

   c) he probably has a lot of mood swings and gets depressed.

   d) he will be one of those people who whines a lot about what he can’t do.

3. He is modest and probably won’t be aggressive enough to lead this project.

4. He really doesn’t know how good he is, which is great news as he’ll work for a cheaper salary. Score!

5. He is being British. A-ha.

Talking to Brits, there seems to be a general consensus that it’s just not done to “toot one’s own horn” and those who do may well be disliked or even despised (with no acknowledgment that they are using their own cultural bias when doing so) so I guess the question is – how do British people communicate about what they’re able to do, and more importantly not able to do, honestly?

How do they let others who don’t know them personally know about the quality they are capable of producing if they aren’t willing to acknowledge and be proud of it?

Teaching Understatement

How do we explain this cultural phenomena to our global students? If we teach them to make understatements, aren’t we teaching to a cultural bias? Given that some cultures are much more direct while some are even less open when stating achievements and ambitions, what phrases should we be teaching them to better enable the handling of global interview scenarios or perhaps even understand the British they may want to hire?

Karenne hardly needs an introduction to anyone who has ever searched for materials for ELT classes or insights into teaching dogme-style, blogging or technology. In 'merican vernacular, Kalinago English is awesome. And in BrE - just magnificent.

Other posts related to this:

British understatement


Coming in under the wire

 Posted by at 6:55 pm

  11 Responses to “Underselling Brits”

  1. LOL.

    Drives my husband mad.

    But it is bigger than me, just don’t want to look like I’m full of myself to the point that I’ll play down my assets.

    Oddly enough I don’t teach that to my students though, I think once you out in the big, wide world long enough you get the hang of separating your own cultural biases (if you can even remember what there are, as the decades slip past) and move more into a space where you focus on communication that works in most cultures, with most of the people, most of the time.


    I think many of us recognise the shortcomings of this urge to play down compliments enough not to impose the strategy on others, but just can’t move past a lifetime of cultural influence in order to modify our own knee jerk reactions.

    I still do find a “oh wow I am just the bees knees” Brit hard to take, but don’t use the same measuring stick for say, an Italian or American, probably because I think you develop a different level of tolerance when it comes to people from countries where you know “the rules” are not the same.

    I’m finding this hard to illustrate…

    for example

    I spend an awful lot of time on mummy forums, most of the participants are from the States, my reaction to a statement of “I’m a great mom !” will range from some serious envy that I can’t vocalise (or even feel) that level of self confidence in my own abilities, right through to retching in a bucket…depending on the context in which it is said and the tone of the words around it.

    Whereas a Brit declaring she is “a great mum” will have me recoiling post haste no matter who said it, why or in what way.

    See what I mean ?

  2. Oh welcome Sara! You’ve just reminded me of something I’ve had to learn to do when I’m playing with young kids in the US – vocalize my praise. I realised I wasn’t saying ‘Good job’ nearly enough by ‘merican standards.
    (Just discovered your blog and love it Sara! Good job – in the British sense)

  3. I think it’s got a lot to do with history, recent history at that. 60 years ago or so we ruled the world and I’m sure the attitude was different, then after WWII we were flat, stinking, stoney broke and all of those countries we had held power over were demanding freedom – even earlier in the US sense.
    As a nation, therefore, I think we were embarrassed, that we’d held top position and let it go… now, from my perspective, we feel weak, our British Bulldog has changed to a scabby poodle, and understating our skills and abilities has become a national trait.
    This is something I think that needs to be reversed, we’ve got to get back to the time when we actually called this land ‘Great’ Britain… but at the minute, we’ve got nothing shout about. Maybe a win in the World Cup will change that and give us a little bit of pride back. Here’s hoping.

  4. Don’t we just add a phew phrases like:

    I’m pretty good at…
    I’m not bad at….
    It’s nothing to write home about but…….?

  5. Understatement is a big part of what we here in the Upper Midwest call “Minnesota Nice”. We stick tons of polite, humble qualifiers on negative statements (“Oh, I thought that was kinda sorta bad. Ya know?”). it’s part of a kind of humbly egalitarian “don’t you dare say you have it worse than anyone else” mindset that seems to be an assimilated Scandinavian cultural trait.

  6. Welcome Taylor and thank you for reminding me of this. I used to work for a Swedish company where ‘egalitariansim’ was very much part of the culture. But speaking of Scandinavian culture, the humour melded remarkably well with British English I often thought – particularly Norwegian humour. Shared negative politeness perhaps. Relationships might be slow to warm up, but after an intial shyness had been overcome, I’d sometimes find myself weeping with laughter.

  7. The interview problem cuts both ways – if a Brit is being interviewed in the US the prospective employer needs to be aware of the possibility that the Brit will undersell him/herself. Likewise a British potential employer needs to take account of the fact that a US interviewee may come across as boastful and arrogant.

    I’m not sure that you need to teach students to be understated, just to teach them that there are different cultural ways of doing things. But for what it’s worth I think people who are clearly not native English speakers are cut a lot more slack than, say, Americans in this regard 🙂

    I’m not an expert but I think there is an interesting place somewhere in the middle of this continuum for Australian English too =>
    Brits undersell themselves
    Americans oversell themselves (or at least big up their achievements and don’t talk about their flaws)
    Australians see themselves as being much more honest than either of these approaches. And a core value is “cutting down the tall poppy” (ie making sure that the boastful or arrogant are put in their place – and to Australians many US Americans come across as boastful).

    But it would be good to get the perspective of an Aussie to check whether I’ve got that roughly right.

  8. Ooo, I’ve woken up to comments from Andy. Always a pleasure!

    I like the continuum idea. I think modesty is probably seen as a desirable trait in all cultures but it competes with other desirable traits like being agreeable, or being open, or being honest and straightforward or whatever. Which one tends to win varies from place to place. And rather than one continuum, we might actually be looking at several here.

    That ‘cutting down the tall poppy’ idea is very interesting. The Japanese have an expression about hammering down the nail that’s sticking up. That might be more about eliminating non-conformity though, not sure, but I think it might also be related to this – ie someone that’s trying to stand out should be cut down to size.

    If I compare the UK and US, I think Brits feel more at liberty to criticize or make fun of someone who is sounding too full of themselves – it’s seen as more acceptable to bring them down a peg or two. I don’t fully understand it, but I suspect that in the US, a ‘being agreeable’ requirement might take precedence, so there tends to be less challenging of boastful behaviour. (It doesn’t mean that people don’t think ‘He/she’s boasting’, of course. Just that they might be less likely to openly criticize it.)

    Australia is a very interesting case. If honesty is prized highly in Australia, I can see how both Brits and Americans would seem to fall short. It would be great to get an Australian take on this. Any Ozzies out there? Please come join us and chip in.

  9. […] Karenne Sylvester on the way Brits undersell themselves […]

  10. […] Karenne Sylvester on the way Brits undersell themselves […]

  11. […] things seem to go on in situations like job interviews as well. (Karenne Sylvester wrote a funny guest post here about […]

 Leave a Reply