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.
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.
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”.
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?
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.
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