English phrases – Not wishing to offend

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Not wishing to offend

If you’ve been thinking that business English is not as difficult as you first feared, now is a good time for us to bring a small piece of bad news.

Actually it’s not bad news; it’s just a small warning that the real meaning of some things said in English may not always be as straightforward as they sound.

The reasons for this are cultural. Throughout much of their modern history, the British have placed a great value on politeness and good manners. These were and still are seen as signs of good breeding and an expensive education.

Which is completely unrealistic, of course, because some of the worst villains in history have appeared smooth and cultured on the outside.

But this means that what a British business person says is not necessarily what they mean. In an attempt to remain polite, they will often use words and phrases that disguise their disagreement or disapproval. Perhaps the most common among friends and family is, “Oh that’s nice,” which if you think about it is almost meaningless.

What, after all does nice mean? In its most common usage, it means pleasant, agreeable. If that sounds like a way of withholding enthusiastic praise, it is and it’s a typical middle-of-the-road British-ism. There are plenty more.

Let’s look at some of the most common ones in the business world. After giving your opinion on an important matter, somebody might say: “That’s a very interesting point of view.”

What they usually mean is, “It is interesting but it’s total nonsense.” Consider the meaning of the word interesting. It means absorbing or fascinating, not necessarily good.

There’s a well-known but little used English phrase: “May you live in interesting times,” which is rumoured to be a Chinese curse. It isn’t Chinese at all but it is a wish that you should suffer hardship, based on the perverted idea that hardship and disruption are somehow more interesting than their opposites. See how confusing the British can be?

After considering a written proposal, your superior might sum up by saying, “I just have a few minor comments.” This means you can expect a major re-write or perhaps you have to scrap the whole idea. To tell you that frankly to your face would obviously upset and discourage you, so your superior tries to lead you gently to this conclusion.

“We must have lunch,” might sound like an invitation but it’s just a way of being polite. A genuine invitation will include the day and the time, such as: “Let’s have lunch on Thursday, how’s one o’ clock?” Instead of lunch, the invitation might be for drinks after work, coffee one morning, a game of golf one weekend or a visit to a place of interest.

Unless it comes with a time and date for when this could happen, it’s best just to reply, “Yes, that would be nice,” and move on. (There’s that nice word again, showing about as much enthusiasm as finding a coin down the back of the sofa.)

Here’s a tricky one. Delivered by a superior, the phrase “I would suggest you finish this proposal today.” It is not something you are expected to consider, it’s a coded instruction to do so, or else you’ll be in trouble. So responding with “Ah I’ve got that down for tomorrow afternoon,” is unlikely to improve your career prospects.

One really confusing example is the use of good and bad. When a British person says, “Hey, that’s not bad,” they don’t mean it’s only a little bit good, they really mean it’s very good.  On the other hand, if they describe something as quite good, it usually means it’s a bit disappointing. The most extreme phrase expressing dislike is: “That’s bloody awful,” which, to North American or Australasian ears is fairly mild.

Confused? Just remember, the British behave in this way not in an attempt to mislead you, it’s just they’re desperately keen not to upset you or be offensive.

What makes this even more interesting is that Americans have a slightly different way of protecting your ego and self-esteem. In a job performance review, for example, an American boss is likely to praise your good qualities so highly that, by the time she gets to your weaknesses, you’re no longer paying close attention. You leave the meeting believing you’re a star, so not getting a raise or a bonus comes as a complete surprise.

We hope you found this useful or even not bad for, as we know, that means it’s good. If not, I’m sure it’s my fault which another polite English phrase that means it’s your fault!

Read The Culture Map by Erin Meyer and you’ll get a good understanding of how to do business with people of different cultures.

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