Ask the Specialist: Why don’t the British just say what they mean?


If you have ever found yourself in the United Kingdom trying to understand your British colleagues who gave you a strange answer or you cannot put your finger on what was going on, then this article is for you.

Our consultant Wojciech Kolodziejczak explains:

“Yes, it was too much!!! I remember saying that to my British manager a couple of years ago as he talked about lots of unimportant things and did not want to tell me directly what (is) was the problem.”

The origin of the phrase 
‘Beating about the bush or the American version: Beating around the bush’ goes back to medieval age when it was customary to beat the bushes during the bird hunts so that the birds were so frightened by the noise that they flew up into the air and therefore could be seen and captured by the huntsmen. Today the idiom has moved away from its original meaning of being a prelude to the main event, to its current meaning of ‘to evade’, ‘to avoid’ or ‘to speak in a roundabout way’.

High context
The British are quite indirect communicators; they deeply avoid creating conflicts. Therefore you should not take everything British say literally, as the combination of politeness, double meanings and understatements can make it seem like they are saying the opposite of what they are actually thinking. 

A few examples:

  • That’s one way of putting it’ can be a polite way of saying ‘This idea is ridiculous’
  • ‘I only have a few minor comments’ could be a respectful way of communicating ‘Please rewrite completely’, whereas you understood it as ‘He has found a few typos’.

The British culture is a high context culture, therefore words are not enough. You will have to read between the lines to understand what they really mean. You have to know the background and context to understand the message and interpret tone, expression and non-verbal communication.

When asked, ‘How are you?’ the only appropriate answer is along the lines of, ‘Fine, thanks.  You should not go into detail about any problems you go through. When British friend greets you with, ‘Hi – are you all right? ‘ you can answer with, ‘Yes, thank you’, or simply say, ‘Y’all right?’ back, as it really just means hello.

More helpful tips:

About the author: Wojciech Kolodziejczak
Wojciech’s mission is to promote cross-cultural networking and to educate professionals that building strong business relations can help them grow their careers, businesses and personal lives.

He is a business trainer specialised in cross-cultural communication, networking, and negotiation skills for British, Polish, and other international businesses. He is also a visiting lecturer on cross-cultural networking skills for the Federation of Small Businesses, London Metropolitan University and other organisations.

More info about Wojciech:

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