Deciphering British English — 3 thoughts from a Brit working abroad

Curtis Stanier
5 min readSep 10, 2017

I have been in Berlin for 8 months now. I moved from London late year for a role as a Product Manager at HelloFresh. I can honestly say I love the environment I work in. It’s a mix of people from all over the world with a passion for doing and building amazing things. However, the melting pot that is HelloTech highlighted to me some things about my mother-tongue that I had never really thought about before.

I quickly realised that the British often don’t mean what they say (or say what they mean). This isn’t because we’re the dastardly movie villains that Hollywood often casts us as but it can cause problems. Clarity is often a result of either British idioms or our reputation for being overly polite.

These quirks pose no problem to native-English speaking Brits that are used to the flares and nuances of our language, however, they should be considered when speaking to non-native speakers. I imagine every language has its own colour and charm that really only its own natives understand, however, in the modern, global work environment it is important to make sure you’re understood. Being a native speaker speaking your own languages does not necessarily mean that others understand you.

1. Items rarely make sense when then literally

It wasn’t until moving to Berlin that I realised many British idioms can be quite confusing to non-native speakers. Phrases such as “throwing the baby out with the bath water” or “raining cats and dogs can cause a lot of confusion”. The literal implications of the sayings are very different form the message we are trying to get across. Brits would think nothing of these sayings in their own environment but when talking about a “silver bullet solution” in a meeting your message is quickly lost. The focus for others shifts from the point you’re attempting to make to understanding the words that you used. Native speakers should be aware of when they are using idioms and this should only be in an appropriate situation — a workshop or business review is not it. Far from clarifying your meaning or intent — idioms actually convolute it.

2. British Politeness will hinder more than help

Both idioms and British politeness carry a different meaning to what is being said. However, idioms are a component of colour in our language and are normally identifiable (although they may not be understood). British politeness, however, often makes literal sense but masks the true message. The Telegraph wrote a piece on a translation table explaining the true meaning of what Brits say when they’re being polite.

British Politeness can be even more damaging in a business situation as it is more often employed by the British in times of conflict or disagreement. These are times when it is more crucial than ever to be clear on your position.

It’s healthy for people to disagree — conflict over an opinion or approach is a good thing. It allows discussion and debate and opens us to new perspectives. HelloTech was not the first time I have disagreed with someone (and it won’t be the last). However, it was one of the first times where what I was saying was done without the cultural background of British politeness.

I will not go into the details, however, it was similar to an example I’ve taken from the Telegraph.My phrase was something like, “I hear what you say” and expected my colleague to understand, “ disagree and do not want to discuss it further”. However, what my colleague understood was actually, “they accept my point of view”. This lead to a lot of confusion on both sides. Although there was other things that we both could have done to follow up on our positions my language added unnecessary complexity to the discussion. As an example, it does demonstrate the problem with being overly polite. For colleague I came across as being fickle, easily swayed or even insincere which was never my intention.

I am not advocating that Brits are rude to their colleagues and I’m sure this doesn’t apply to every Brit abroad, however, a clear comment and intent is appreciated much more than politeness-filler. It allows everyone involved in that discussion to get to the root of what needs to be done without the miscommunication and ambiguity.

3. Assumptions & Abilities

One of the things that I did most commonly when I first arrived at HelloFresh is made assumptions about others’ language abilities. Because my colleagues work and write English so well it is easy to forget that it often is not their native language. Their proficiency with English is significantly better than my own abilities with foreign languages. Simple things such as typing ‘tyty’ (Thank you, Thank you) on Slack or the idioms listed above can stump someone proficient in English if they’ve not come across them before. The difficulty I faced initially is not that my colleagues are poor at English — quite the opposite — they are very good. Most native speakers will adjust their style (sentence length and structure or word complexity) for someone that is visibly new to the language. However, when talking to a proficient but non-native speaker it is easy skip over the considerations mentioned above.

In Conclusion.

It is a difficult balance between ensuring what you say is clear and not removing too much of the character of the language. When learning Russian we were taught to use models and sentence templates that we could tweak as we needed. The models were grammatically correct and we could be understood but when talking to native Russian speakers they did find them a little unnatural to listen to. I don’t want to deprive other learners of the uniqueness of English (as I wouldn’t want to be deprived of the nuances of theirs!) but in a business environment clarity should always reign supreme.

Reference — Idioms use:

  • Throwing the baby out with the bath water — When something good is eliminated when trying to get rid of something bad.
  • Raining cats and dogs — Raining very heavily
  • Silver bullet — A simple solution for a difficult problem

--

--

Curtis Stanier

Director of Product at @DeliveryHeroCom. Formerly @HelloFresh, @BBC, @Atos. Passion for product, business &tech. I like helping people solve problems. Berlin