Tag Archives: eu

541. What British People Say vs What They Mean

Examining British communication style and debunking a few myths about how British people communicate. This episode is based on a famous infographic called “What British People Say vs What They Really Mean” or “The Anglo-EU Translation Guide”. It contains lots of thoughts about how direct and indirect cultures communicate with each other, and some samples of business English, with a few improvised scenarios too! Transcript available.

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Transcript (below)

In this episode I’m talking about an infographic which is often shared online called “What British People Say vs What They Mean”. In the infographic there are three columns. One with sentences typically spoken by English people. The next column has what, apparently, British people really mean, and then the third column shows us the perceived meanings of those sentences by foreigners. It is supposed to highlight the indirectness of British English speakers and the how people from direct cultures often misunderstand us.

 

I’m going to go through the graphic line by line, discussing the language, talking about the indirect communication style of British people and discussing to what extent this infographic is true and how much is a stereotype.

This relates to several conversations I’ve had in episodes in the past, namely the ones about cultural differences with Amber & Paul, British humour with Amber and the one about language & culture with Alex van Walsum.

This chart often pops up online. You might have seen it. It’s shared on Facebook or Twitter, and people send it to me by email. People send this to me all the time, often accompanied with the question “Is this true?” It’s probably the infographic that I’ve seen more than any other. A while ago I shared it on my Facebook page and it got a big response with thousands of people seeing it and loads of comments.

The chart is anonymously written. It may have first appeared in an article on the Economist’s website. Apparently some people say it originated in a Dutch company that had dealings with the UK, which is interesting because the Dutch are known for being very direct in their communication, so through their eyes the Brits might seem excessively indirect. The infographic is sometimes entitled “What British People Say vs What They Mean” or the “Anglo-EU translation guide”.

Basically the chart presents a list of utterances, which it presents as typical things the British say in business situations, and then two other columns which represent what British people really mean when they say those things, and then how other people actually understand them to mean something quite different.

I think it’s based on communication and cultural differences between the UK and European neighbours. The underlying cultural difference is that in the UK we have an indirect communication culture, particularly with regard to saying negative things, and tend to signal their disapproval, disappointment, disagreement or offence in other ways – either by minimising the negative part, or using euphemism, which may be hard to understand to the untrained ear.

In my experience as an English person living in France, I find that it is definitely true that we have slightly different communication styles as a result of our cultural differences. But they’re just slightly different really.

One example of a difference between France and the UK is that generally in the UK our first interaction with people – especially people in service positions, e.g. if you’re going to the post office to collect a package which you’ve been told is there even though last time you went they claimed it definitely wasn’t there. So you have to go back and kind of complain and make them look again. In the UK my normal way of doing it would be to approach the situation in a nice way, using friendliness as a social lubricant to help things go more smoothly. Like “Sorry to bother you again! I went to the other post office and they told me the package is definitely here. Could you have another look for me? Thanks!” You kind of talk to that person like you understand how you’re personally putting them out, but between the two of you there is a friendly understanding. You’re nice to the person, even though technically they’re wrong and you’re sort of making a complaint. That’s how it goes much of the time – not every time of course. Often when Brits are unhappy with a service they will complain about it very directly. But many times you’ll see or hear Brits being pretty friendly when dealing with people in impersonal situations.

Now, that might actually be perceived not as a nice, informal gesture – but as fake, and two faced because in fact you’re actually not happy with the situation and you don’t know them personally, so why are you being all chummy?

In Paris, your first interaction would typically be a bit more formal and also a bit less friendly. If you’re all nice and friendly and you smile, you might be perceived as weak. That’s not to say that French people don’t smile – of course they do, but in that kind of service situation where you are making a complaint you’re likely to be serious and with a straight face. You can be completely straight about it and bring your unhappiness to the table. It’s normal to dig your heels in and argue a little bit before things then turn into a more amicable arrangement. It usually ends well, but there’s a bit of conflict at the start, for example saying “no” or “it’s not possible” at the beginning, before deciding later to ‘make an exception’.

I refer you to the episode with Alex Van Walsum who sums this up really well.

teacherluke.libsyn.com/391-discussing-language-culture-comedy-with-alexander-van-walsum

Episode 391 – play the bit

If you’re nice and you compromise from the start they’ll walk all over you without even realising it. So there’s conflict at the beginning until the thing finally gets resolved, and later on a relationship of trust might develop from the problem being fixed, but it comes after. I’m not saying in the UK we’re never direct or angry in that situation, or that in France people are never nice at first, I’m just saying in my experience it pays to be more formal and tough at the beginning or you’ll be taken for granted. Whereas in the UK my approach would be a bit different.

Sometimes this difference gets the better of me. I might go to a restaurant and say “Do you have a table for two at 8?” and the guy says “It’s complicated” or “No, it’s not possible” and I smile and say “OK, that’s a pity, thanks for your help!” and then leave. But what I often don’t realise is that “No, it’s not possible” is just the starting point. What you should do then is wait and just not take no for an answer. Wait and say “Is there anything you can do?” and dig your heels in a bit. Often, after a bit of digging, you might get a result. But you have to push through a little barrier first in many cases.

The point is that the words we use and the messages we convey are often quite different, and messages are often subject to various cultural codes which allow the people involved to truly understand what is being said vs what is the intended meaning, or illocutionary force of something.

Or more simply, in indirect cultures we don’t always say exactly what we mean, and it depends on the other person to decode the intended meaning of our messages. This is more common in some cultures than others, and this kind of indirectness does have a social function. If you’re from a direct culture, you’re less likely to be able to decode the messages and that’s where the misunderstandings happen.

That brings us to this chart of what British people say vs what they mean.

This chart essentially targets this cultural and linguistic point quite specifically, and while there is truth in it, I think the chart is not completely accurate.

Nevertheless, let’s go through what Brits say vs what they mean and see what we can learn.

One of the most important problems with this chart is the lack of context and the fact that these are spoken phrases written down, so none of the intonation is included. Intonation and context are vital in the way these messages are delivered and understood.

Without the context and intonation, this chart makes Brits look incredibly devious and two-faced. It also makes other people seem pretty dumb and naive.

On balance, what do I think of this?

It’s exaggerated. Brits are not as stuffy, awkward or unable to say what we mean as this seems to suggest. It’s slightly old fashioned too.

Also it’s not really fair on foreigners who aren’t that stupid.

I think it originally came from the Netherlands (who we do most of our business with in the EU) and they’re known for being a very plain talking, direct culture. So, this is perhaps from the dutch point of view, which exaggerates things further.

There is a point being made too, which is that the English say the opposite of what they mean, which is not true. Direct cultures tend to view indirect ones as being two-faced, hypocritical and even duplicitous. We do speak indirectly, perhaps downplaying negative things and attempting to use tact and diplomacy but it doesn’t stretch to being deceitful. For the English it’s a way to keep things nice and to sugarcoat our formal relationships. It’s a respectful distance which has been in the culture for a long time. We might be a bit indirect by dutch standards, but we know what we’re talking about. We understand what each other means, because we know the codes. So it’s a functional communication system, and just another way to share ideas while getting on at the same time.

Another point is that you could argue that it’s specifically English, rather than British because there is a slight cultural difference between the English and the Scottish, Irish, Welsh and even Cornish people, who might be more direct. Anyway, I know plenty of English people who are perfectly capable of being direct and saying exactly what they mean.

Also, there may be a class issue here. I think this relates to certain kinds of middle class or upper class English people, who tend to communicate like this, especially in a formal situation. There are certainly plenty of English people who are very direct in their communication style.
The situation is also important. Most of these phrases are used at work where diplomacy is important. In social situations these same people might be extremely direct, for example with friends who you make fun of and speak to without any kind of filter.

The sentences are out of context, so it’s not obvious how the phrase is intonated or what other phrases are used around it. Written down like that it has no nuance and can make the Brits look like pretty awful. So, this graph is designed to make people laugh and illustrate a tendency for Brits to be a bit indirect, but it is by no means a flawless guide to British communication style.
It’s a bit black and white. In fact there are plenty of UK individuals who are more direct than this, and EU individuals who are indirect. It’s a bit “them and us”, a bit ‘black and white’ and therefore a bit unfair.

It’s not just Brits. There are plenty of other cultures or individuals who also communicate like this. Canadians, for example, are well-known for having a polite and indirect communication style.

While there is definitely an underlying point being demonstrated by the chart, taking it on face value makes British people seem insincere and sneaky – which is a common criticism of us by European people with direct communication styles. Whereas us Brits see our communication style as diplomatic and avoiding conflict and essentially all about being nice, other people think we are not being honest, straight or sincere. We just don’t want to be too negative or nasty, but we come across as being unsure of ourselves, weak or untrustworthy. Equally, from the other side, Brits think the French can be wilfully difficult, stubborn and problematic because of how direct they are with negative comments. We also find the Germans – who tend to state things exactly as they are, to be cold and humourless with their ultra-pragmatic approach which doesn’t involve much small talk or ‘window dressing’. It’s tricky isn’t it!

In English we like to sugarcoat things. Not every culture does that. Some do it more than us.
Of course it doesn’t always go like that and most of the time communication happens without problems and it’s all fine. For example I have had many many exchanges with people from many different cultures including those from direct cultures and they’ve been absolutely lovely, but then again I am quite culturally aware and able to minimise this sort of thing by recognising the importance of saying exactly what you mean. I imagine that when people from other countries do business with Brits who are not used to cross cultural communication that sometimes there is friction and it’s often related to these cultural differences.

Also, it could be related to writing style in emails where this kind of thing becomes so much more obvious. I can imagine foreign people receiving English emails and wondering what exactly the person means – like the example of my wife and the castle.

For example, apparently when the German company BMW took over the British car manufacturer Rover, it took ages for BMW to fully understand the extent of the problems at Rover because all the British staff minimised the problems or spoke in slightly vague euphemisms. The Germans were not able to decode the embedded negatives within the Brits’ responses.

E.g. “We’ve had a few slight issues on the production line. Staff have expressed some preference for a longer break during the afternoon shift.” How big are those problems on the production line exactly? It would probably be worth investigating them further rather than assuming they are just “a few slight issues”.

Overall, I think there is truth in this chart, which is why it’s such an enduring success online, but it’s not totally true. The truth is that Brits put a positive shine on things as a social lubricant (sugarcoating) and it works within indirect cultures, whereas direct cultures say things as they are which can make them seem unfriendly or cold hearted yet ultimately more sincere. Neither approach is better than the other, they’re just alternatives.

Really, it’s about context. With indirect cultures, the indirect style probably feels more natural, with direct cultures it’s the other way around. The problems arise when the two cultures get together and then misunderstand each other. For the chart, more perspective and context is required to really understand what’s going on, and to avoid knee-jerk reactions. I say knee-jerk reactions – these are sort of quick, instant responses that happen without thoughtful consideration (like when a doctor taps your knee and it jerks forward without you thinking about it). Those things might be to conclude that Germans have no sense of humour, French people are willfully difficult and don’t want to work, English people are hypocrites who don’t say what they mean.

Simple binary comparisons of language without context like this can foster unbalanced opinions which can lead to or reinforce resentment and things like that. The final point is that despite our communication style, we’re still just as fair-minded, honest, trustworthy, narrow minded, dishonest and untrustworthy as anybody else! Don’t jump to conclusions and never let cultural differences cause you to make fast judgements about people without seeing the whole picture!

“The British are too polite to be honest, whereas the Germans are too honest to be polite.”
Source: www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-13545386

351. BREXIT: Should the UK leave the EU? (A Conversation with my Dad)

Hello everyone, I hope you’re well. Here is an episode featuring a conversation with my Dad about Brexit – The UK’s referendum on the EU. Finally! I’ve been mentioning this for a while so here it is. You’ve seen it in the news, you’ve read it in the papers – the UK is having a referendum on membership of the European Union and who knows, we might end up leaving. It’s all over the news and the internet in the UK at the moment, everyone’s talking about it – you can’t escape it and it’s going to get more and more intense the closer we get to 23 June, the date of the referendum. I’ve had plenty of messages from listeners asking me to talk about this on the podcast, so here we go.

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Brexit: A Complex Issue

I’ve been wondering how to approach this topic for ages. It’s actually a very complex issue which I would like to cover properly, taking into account the different arguments in some detail in order to bring some genuine insight to the issue. I think that one of the problems with the subject of the EU and Brexit is that the issues are genuinely difficult to understand, and it takes proper effort and patience to understand them fully. I think it’s fair to say that these days people just don’t feel they have the time or the willingness to look deeply at the issues, and instead just arrive at their opinions based on an emotional reaction. There’s little tolerance for nuance or broad-mindedness it seems. So, I could just skate over the issues and cover this in just one short episode – but you know, I don’t like to do that on this podcast, and in fact podcasting as a medium is generally a great way to have an extended conversation on a topic. You rarely get extended, natural conversations on TV or on the internet about subjects like this. More and more there’s a pressure to make TV broadcasts short and quick, but as a result some of the subtleties are lost. There’s a tendency towards soundbites and short emotion-driven arguments. As a result, some of the more complex arguments are not heard. Certainly with the issue of Brexit in the media – our emotions are being played upon all the time – it’s either ‘fear’ like in the case of David Cameron who suggested that a Brexit could lead to World War 3 or it’s patriotic nationalism on a ridiculous level, like Boris Johnson comparing the EU to Hitler and saying that Britain could be the heroes of Europe. That’s all highly emotional political rhetoric. But let’s have a normal conversation about it shall we?

I think there are several ways to deal with the Brexit subject on this podcast. I could start with the vocabulary and terminology – because there’s a lot of specific language involved in this, when you consider that the whole thing relates to issues like the economy, immigration, sovereignty, legislative procedure, social policy, the environment, security and the workings of the EU institutions. So, I could take a bottom up approach and start with the terminology or the language of Brexit. Or I could go with a top down approach and just talk about the subject. In the end I’ve decided to go with the latter – and that’s to just jump right into the topic here by having a conversation about it. And who better to talk to than my Dad, Rick.

So this is the first thing you’ll hear on the subject – a conversation with my Dad – before I expect to go into Brexit in a bit more detail in some later episodes.

Now, you’ve probably heard my Dad on this podcast before. I thought it could be interesting for you to hear on this podcast a conversation between a well-informed, articulate and intelligent man, and his father. (ha ha)

 

Just one final point here before we listen to the conversation. The day before I spoke to my Dad for the podcast, I posted a question on social media, saying “My Dad’s going to be on the podcast talking about Brexit – do you have any questions?” I got loads of questions from interested LEPsters. Thank you very much if you wrote one. What I did was to consolidate all your queries and points into a just a few simple questions which I then used as a basis for this discussion. So, I don’t actually read out your questions or mention any names, but thank you for your questions – I think we managed to cover a lot of them in our conversation. Anything we didn’t deal with, I’ll come back to later on.

Alright, so without any further ado, let’s now hear the conversation with my Dad Rick about the UK’s referendum on Europe, and here we go.

*Conversation Begins*

The questions below are a summary of the questions I received from LEPsters on Facebook.

1. WHAT IS BREXIT?

2. WHY HAS THE BREXIT QUESTION COME UP NOW?

3. WHAT ARE THE MAIN ARGUMENTS FOR AND AGAINST BREXIT?

  • The ‘leave’ campaign
  • The ‘remain’ campaign
  • What are the main arguments of the ‘leave’ campaign?
  • What are the main arguments of the ‘remain’ campaign?

4. WHAT WOULD BE THE CONSEQUENCES? (I don’t think we really answered this – so I’ll come back to it)

5. WHAT DO WE THINK PERSONALLY?

*Conversation Ends*

I said there at the end that it’s all a bit complicated. While recording that interview I was thinking that it was bound to be very difficult to follow. Actually, after listening back to that conversation, I think we managed to deal with it in a fairly clear way, especially my Dad, who is very articulate and well-informed on the subject.

I have a variety of listeners with varying levels of knowledge of this subject, so I’m sure some of you followed that without too many problems whereas others might have been a bit lost at times.

So, I do think it’s worth talking more about Brexit on the podcast and I plan to go through some of the key vocabulary associated with this and also revisit the main arguments in forthcoming episodes. Also, as we move closer to the referendum date I am sure more things will happen in the news and it will be interesting to keep an eye on the opinion polls. So watch out for more Brexit-related commentary in the near future.

As ever I am very keen for you to express your opinions on the website. So please leave your comments. What do you think? What do you think about my Dad’s opinions in this episode, and how would you vote in the referendum?
Should the UK leave the EU or should the UK remain a part of the EU?

The LEP EU POLL

In fact, let’s do an LEP EU Referendum of our own, shall we? I wonder how the LEPsters would vote in this referendum.
I have opened up a Brexit poll on my website (you can see it below) – so please visit and cast your vote. It’s anonymous and you don’t need to add your email address.

[socialpoll id=”2363089″]

Thanks very much for listening and take care! BYE!

Luke

Comments & Questions from LEPsters on Facebook

General questions and points of view

Luciano: What is BRETIX??!!
Elizabeth: Right now the UK has some bargaining power. Instead of leaving they should use that to see if they can’t get the worst transgressions off their back. Right?
Roland:  UK has been EU member since 1973. I am wondering why did brexit question come up now? Isn’t it because of the massive migration problem in continental Europe and part of Uk population tend to mix up the two different issues (migration vs. uk-eu renegotiation)?
Mollie:  Happy Birthday , Teacher Luke !
Luciana:  I’d like to know what is the real motivation behind the pro exit campaigners. Will they have any personal gain? Or is it only an ideological matter?
Alessandro:   Hello everybody, hi Luke, I’ve spoken to many Britons so far and all of them are for remaining in Europe. Is there anybody who’s really going to vote leave? In my view many are unable to decide what to do because they have different feelings or there are different things they want. My question is: is the referendum ripping apart British society?
PROs & CONS
What are the main arguments for and against us leaving?
Ricardo:   Hi Luke, my name’s Ricardo and I’m from Brazil. for that Reason I don’t understand why Uk still have a Queen and what’s pro and con for UK’s to be membership of EU.
Aritz:  Hello Richard! Hope you are fine!
My question: why do you think it’ll be better for the UK to stay or to go out? (depending on your point of view).
I’d like a precise answer, and nothing vague please. I’m from Spain and I live and work in London, so I am deeply interested in this issue.Thank you very much!!!
CONSEQUENCES

Anna :  If the UK finally decides to abandon the EU, would it still be a member of Schengen area? Yaron:   I would like to know how it going to affect you personally, if UK will leave (as English man who currently live and work in France)… In addition, I would find it interesting if you will discuss whether UK will leave the EU, would it be the start of the end of the EU. ie, would other countries will also leave the EU eventually (maybe not France and Germany… But other nations)

Kenichi : I would you like to summarise how people supporting the Conservative party or the labour one think about the Brexit. And If the Brexit happens, what would happen on daily goods imported from other EU countries such as wine, beer, sausage, etc. The reason why I’m asking is because I suppose the UK has been getting a lot of benefits from the cheaper trade as a member of EU so far, and those benefits would be lost after the Brexit.

Robert:  If UK leave UE, it will mean that citizens other EU other country (for example Polish) have to leave UK? What do you think. If UK leave UE it would be end of EU?

PERSONAL OPINION

Anna:  Luke, what is your personal attitude towards this issue? How are you going to vote?

Jairo:   I am going to borrow a question from BBC News and ask your dad :

What do you think the EU referendum says about Britain ? ,
tell us in ” six ” words 😊.
Adam:    However, I think I know how you are going to vote, but am curious to hear your father’s point of view, cheers
Piedad:  What will happen with EU citizens already living in UK?
Gabor:  and the same question from a different point of view, what will happen with the UK citizens living abroad in the EU?
Jean:   what will be the real consequences if UK choice to exits from UE… Try, please, to explain us this complicated topic with some examples. Thanks 😉
Abdelhmide:   Hi Luke , my question is ; if the UK leave the EU will you would need visas to go to EU ??Thanks
Other comments from listeners
Burak: Dont exit from EU ..
Adam :  I believe that if Brexit actually happens, the EU will then browbeat the UK to accept some new treaties like those of Switzerland or Norway so that the UK wouldn’t be totally free of the EU anyway. Moreover, this argument is actually being skated around by the Brexit campaigners. Not that I am particularly fond of the EU myself, but still don’t think there is an alternative to it than just being part of the block and fight for a shift.
Nataliya :  Boris Johnson VS David Cameron on this matter
Francesco :  I’m gonna answer you with a Pink Floyd quote: “Together we stand divided we fall”.
Konstantinos : Hello Luke. Thanks for asking.. I don’t think that the Euro-zone has any future in case that the citizens of the United Kingdom, would like / take the decision to continue their destiny as a country, outside from the Europe. The question there is, what are the advantages or disadvantages from this kind of catalytic decision? ..and what’s will be going on with a large group of people who live and work in the UK? Of course, and as we all understand, there’s a domino under the possibility of the negative answer, but from the other side, the British have the opportunity with that referendum to think finally, what are their interests for them and for their country.. My point of view..(?) I think the result surprise us positively.. The sure is that would be a historical moment for the England, which the humanity will remember forever.. and by the way If I have a title earlier in advance for this mini article that would be “The Funeral of the Europe”..
Francesco:   It’s more of an opinion than a question, but here it is: i think it would be really bad for us all if you left the EU and the UK would lose a great deal!