British Language Use

Response to Frank on British Language Use

Hi everyone! It’s Katie here. This week I’m going to be replying to Frank’s post about British language use.  In America there is a stereotype that Canadians are ridiculously polite. This used to be a stereotype about British people, but we’ve been too polite to say anything about Canada taking it from us.

British Language Use

In reality, every country in the world is polite; there are norms of behaviour that apply to each different culture and people. It seems to me that the idea of British people as being polite is due to a certain awkwardness, dislike of conflict, and desire to be seen positively.

Social Norms in Britain

Of course, this does not apply to every British person – far from it! I’ve worked under bosses that have been just as forthright as Americans are seen to be. However, social norms in Britain can be confusing if you were not raised here, so let’s have a look at what people might mean when they use certain terms.

“Quite” in British Language Use

Quite. American English uses this word in a very different way to British English – it has almost the opposite meaning here. In the U.S. the word “quite” is used to add emphasis, although it is fairly old fashioned. So if you are told that your presentation is “quite brilliant”, you should be very happy!

In Britain we sometimes use the word “quite” to provide emphasis, but more often it’s used as a negative modifier. If you thought the meal you just ate was alright but not excellent, you could say “I quite liked the soup”. This would mean that you didn’t love it, but you thought that it was fine. Isn’t it confusing? If you’re not sure what somebody means, think about the tone they used when they said it.

If we look at the list that Frank posted, we can see a few trends. Something that British people often do is to be vague and non-committal if they don’t want to do something. So “I might be in the meeting” often means that the person won’t make it. This is probably due to the desire of not disappointing or upsetting somebody when they ask you to do something or to be somewhere.

Why so Reticent?

This also applies to statements such as “it will probably be fine” – we often don’t like to express negativity, so use optimism to mask our doubts about a situation. This might avoid awkwardness in the moment that it’s said, but it can make it difficult to address th situation later on: “But I thought you said that it would be fine?!”.

If you were’t raised in British culture, I won’t advise trying to adopt these terms! For the most part, the best they do is delay dealing with a situation for the sake of an easier time in the present. This post is more to clarify the confusion that this way of communicating sometimes causes! If you’re unsure of whether a person is being straightforward with you, it’s always good to ask.

Have a lovely week, everybody!

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