What English people really mean –when understanding the words isn’t enough

I’ve been carrying out interviews for a series on my blog called Germans in the UK. The idea behind it is that some of my German customers want to move to England and I thought it would be interesting for them to read what people who have moved from Germany and who are now living in England have to say about living and working here.

As I talked to people and gathered more information, I noticed some recurring themes in terms of their experiences of communication with people in the UK. They spoke of misunderstandings and awkward situations, but it’s not because my interviewees didn’t understand the words. It’s more about the fact that people in the UK don’t always say what they mean, or mean what they say. This can be difficult for people who have come from a culture in which people are more direct and say what they think. They take comments on face value and don’t stop to question whether the other person may have been subtly trying to communicate something less positive.

I’d like to talk about some of these differences so that, whether you’re planning to spend time in the UK or you have to speak with colleagues or customers in England, you can be prepared and have insight that will help you to understand what’s going on.

Criticism is generally less harsh

Let’s start with the positives. Marcus, who moved to England last year said, “they are much kinder and they find more friendly ways of telling you if you do something wrong”.

Well, that’s good. I’d much rather someone said “I think it would be better if you do it this way”, than “That won’t work. You’re doing it wrong”. However, the problem here is that someone might not realise they are being told to do something differently. They might just see it as a friendly suggestion and dismiss it, whereas the other person was actually trying to say “what you’re doing won’t work. You need to do it this way”.

This also applies when you want to give feedback. You may think “this idea is crazy”, but you’ll probably get further with your UK colleagues if you follow Nic’s advice: “even though the level of professionalism is similar, the people tease each other a lot more over here, and they are much less confrontational than the Germans. You have to be diplomatic when presenting solutions or suggesting any changes, or you risk offending somebody.”

Understating things

The typical English person doesn’t jump around with excitement or fling their arms round their friends in a warm embrace. Sometimes it’s not good to take their words literally.

“That’s not bad”, can actually be interpreted as “that’s quite good”. “I’m not doing too bad”, probably just means “I’m doing ok!”

According to Marco, people in Germany are more direct than they are here. As a result, it’s important to listen out for the hidden or understated messages because people might not spell them out for you. “I am a bit disappointed that” probably means that the person is very disappointed. We sometimes use words like “a bit” or “quite” to soften the blow, but the key words in the sentence are “I’m disappointed”.

I know that I have been guilty of this as a teacher in the past. “I have A few minor corrections” does often mean exactly that, but sometimes it means “I’ve read your work and now I’m going to tell you about your mistakes. There were actually more than a few minor ones but I don’t want you to feel bad”.

Sometimes people don’t mean what they say

There are no definite rules. Sometimes, “I’ll bear it in mind” does mean exactly that. The person will take your comment on board and think about it going forward. However it can also mean “That’s a completely useless contribution, but I have to acknowledge it so as not to be impolite”.

In the same way, “that’s interesting” can mean any number of things from it’s indeed really interesting to it’s strange or it’s completely irrelevant, let’s move on. The key here is to think about what else the person is saying, how quickly they want to move on, whether they look bored or eager to learn more.

Let’s get to the point

This is what Angelika had to say: “British people seem to beat around the bush a lot before they get down to business instead of getting straight to the point. It frustrates me sometimes as I just want to get on with it.”

Sometimes English people are masters of conversation when it comes to superficial subjects such as the weather. It’s a way to break the ice. Everyone can have an opinion and it’s hard to get into a controversy unless you get into a heated debate about global warming. This may go on longer than you are used to, but plunging straight into the business details may leave people feeling that you’re not interested in them, but only the task at hand.

Some people will feel happy spending a whole evening with you without telling you much about themselves. They may choose to open up once they know you better, or they may not. And whatever you do, don’t expect people to be open about their age. Most won’t!

Being polite vs being honest

Anja shared quite openly about the difficulties she faced in this area. “I found there is a different culture in how people communicate and at the start I really struggled with people being polite but actually not meaning what they said in the same way I was used to from German friends. People are a lot more polite on the surface and less straightforward, which I think can be a struggle to start with; Not just in business.”

“It’s fine” or “it doesn’t matter” shouldn’t be taken literally if someone has a face like thunder or a scowl, or if the other person keeps going on about the thing that apparently doesn’t matter!

I admit it. Even as a native English speaker who’s spent her whole life here, I got caught out recently when someone promised me a lunch invitation. It never arrived. They may have forgotten, but it’s also possible that it wasn’t a proper invitation. I don’t make those kind of invitations if I don’t mean them, but occasionally people do. If the other person doesn’t respond to you or make time for you, the chances are that the promised invitation will never come.

People who don’t do what you expect them to aren’t necessarily being rude

Particularly among colleagues, the salutation in emails is often dropped. So there’s no “kind regards”, “best wishes” or “have a good weekend”. Sometimes there’s just the person’s name at the bottom. Sometimes they just write your name at the top, with no “dear”, “hi” etc. Whilst I may be tempted to do that if someone is annoying me, many people do it out of habit and there is no hidden message at all. In this way, English people can offend colleagues from other parts of the world without even realising it.

Christina said “I noticed that it is not uncommon here that people don’t greet each other while in Germany we shake hands with every colleague in the morning.”

I would think it rude if I said “good morning” to a colleague and they didn’t answer, but I think that, generally, particularly in the big cities, we are less likely to greet people than in other parts of the world. I remember going to get a coffee in a hotel in Sweden and some people whom I didn’t know said good morning to me on the way past. I returned the greeting, but it took me by surprise because it’s not what I’m used to.

In terms of people that you know, greeting them is normal, but many English people only shake hands the first time that they meet someone. They wouldn’t do it every day.

Less formality

It’s not all bad! According to Christine, the atmosphere seems much more relaxed in the UK, people joke and are not very formal.

Christine is the second person to mention joking, and it’s true – we can be a less formal, relaxed bunch of people.

Anne-Marie pointed out that in the UK people usually start off on a first name basis, whereas in Germany, people happily work alongside each other for years before offering the “Du”. This is true. When I worked in a previous role, even the Directors were spoken to using their first names and this was completely normal. It’s just a different kind of working culture. It doesn’t mean that we respect them any less or that we are closer to our colleagues – it’s just a different way of doing things.

So, what does this mean for you?

For me, as an English person, I find direct communication refreshing. You don’t waste time promising to do things that you have no intention of doing. Yes means yes and no means no. I didn’t think that we, as English people, were particularly polite, but what my German contacts tell me suggests otherwise. Maybe I’m just not typically British!

Anyway, the point of this article wasn’t to confuse you or to portray your UK colleagues as people who don’t say what they mean or mean what they say. I just wanted to highlight some situations in which it’s necessary to think beyond the actual words to the other messages that people may be trying to convey.

More from English with Kirsty

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Kirsty working with students

I also offer one-to-one language and communication training so that you can improve your English, get your ideas across well and communicate effectively in English (which means both h understanding others and being understood).

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