While mastering another language is one thing, understanding cultural differences is quite another. The British, like all nations, have their peculiarities, some of which are quite amusing.
English speaking people who have grown up in Britain, as opposed to America, Canada or Australia are emotionally repressed and nowhere is this more evident than in their conversation.
On meeting an Australian for the first time, you’re likely to be greeted with a broad smile, an outstretched hand and a confident introduction such as: “Hello mate, my name’s Dave and I’ve just arrived from Sydney, Australia.”
The average English person doesn’t quite know how to respond to such openness so will say something awkward like, “Oh, oh, really – how nice.” This is not meant to be rude, it’s simply that they’re not used to such confident and straightforward greetings.
Introductions are important
Most British people prefer to be properly introduced before they attempt a conversation. A short and simple introduction like this will do: “Alex, this my friend Dave, he’s just arrived from Australia. Dave, meet Alex.”
“How do you do, Dave. Australia eh, gosh you must be missing the sunshine.”
Here we encounter two more peculiarities of English conversation. The correct response to the phrase “How do you do?” is not “I’m very tired, I just arrived on an overnight flight from Sydney.” That would be too obvious.
You too are expected to say, “How do you do?” In theory, this exchange could continue for ever but one “How do you do?” per person is fine.
This is a very old-fashioned greeting but it remains popular among older, traditional people and is still quite common in business, especially in the more formal industries.
An obsession with the weather?
The other strange thing you’ll have noticed is the comment about the weather. If you meet regularly with British people, you’ll soon believe that they are obsessed by how cold, wet, windy, cloudy or hot the weather is, but this isn’t true.
The weather is seen as a neutral topic that’s introduced as an ice-breaker. A conversation between British work colleagues often starts like this:
“Hello Stephen. How do you like this rain?”
“Good morning Brian. We had it all night long, I was worried my rose garden would get washed away.”
“Oh well, at the least the ducks will be happy. Now about this morning’s meeting…”
Ducks and other water birds, especially in Britain, are assumed to enjoy wet weather.
So this mindless chatter about the weather is simply a non-threatening way to start their conversation. Of course, if the subject matter is deeply serious such as a death in the family or a crisis at work, there will be no mention of the weather. Usually such a conversation would begin like this:
“Oh hello, Martin. I’m so sorry to hear of your loss, we all are.”
“Thank you, Tanya. At least she wasn’t in any pain.”
“Would you like some tea?”
You can see clearly from this exchange the emotional repression hard at work. Less inhibited people might hug each other, hold hands, cry, touch the other person’s arm or shoulder, or in some other way express their sympathy.
The repressed British
The British, however, believe in playing down any outward feelings because their limited emotional range makes it too difficult and uncomfortable. Sometimes, this is taken to the extreme.
When Princess Diana died as a result of a car accident in Paris, Queen Elizabeth remained in Scotland with Diana’s two sons and took them to church which was their usual custom.
Many people, Brits included, felt the Queen should not have appeared to carry on as though nothing had happened, but she would have felt it necessary to show that emotion would not be allowed to interfere with her duties.
Notice that when Martin thanked Tanya for her condolences, he didn’t offer any information about the death of his loved one, except to say she wasn’t in pain. This allows the subject of the death to be abandoned in favour of a cup of tea.
Not coffee, though the British drink 70 million cups of it every day. Tea is seen as the natural remedy for warming you up, dealing with stress and comforting you in times of sadness. Perhaps that’s why they drink 165 million cups of it every day.
The British have strange attitudes to work
In Britain, it’s expected that you’ll take your work fairly seriously but, unless you’re toiling single-handedly to discover a cure for a fatal disease, you’re expected to moan about your job, your boss, your office or factory and anything else associated with the way you make your living.
This is part of the British desire to be seen as not taking anything too seriously.
Even at school, British kids who enjoy studying are often bullied and insulted. So faintly amusing complaints are preferred. After a break – for tea, of course – you’ll often hear someone say, “Right, back to the salt mines.”
This is a reference to the old Russian practice of sending their prisoners to labour in the salt mines of Siberia.
Bosses are referred to as slave driver, big kahuna, big cheese, queen bee and a variety of other ironic phrases. So someone might say, “There goes my phone, I wonder what the supreme leader wants now.”
None of this necessarily implies any real disrespect, it’s just a typically British way of finding humour in any situation.
Be careful. Some phrases are misleading
Many English speakers around the world are, like the British, very skilled at the art of understatement. So the phrase, “We were rather worried…” sounds like they were just a little concerned about something. In fact, they were terrified.
If someone at work says, “We’re just a little concerned about some of the numbers in your report,” you’d better push a fresh battery in your calculator and make doubly sure they’re correct.
What they really mean is they are very concerned.
Just to confuse you even more, “I’m terribly sorry…” can be used if they’re only a little sorry. So, if someone accidentally touches you with their briefcase in a lift, they might use this phrase but, clearly, they’re not going to lose any sleep over such a minor incident.
Equally, though, if someone in your close family has recently died or fallen seriously ill, the same phrase can be used to express sincere condolences.
With English, the context matters as much as the words themselves. As this is such a complex challenge, it’s a subject we’ll be returning to frequently