The British have a reputation as being polite and having a ‘stiff upper lip’* and in many instances this is true. However, just because they say one thing, it does not always follow that this is what they actually mean. Here are a few instances when understanding what is being said is not what is being implied.

Understatement Rules

For example, the British have a habit of self deprecation. If I am struggling* to open a lock with a key I might be thinking to myself ‘Just turn the key, you fool’ but out loud I will say to anyone who is listening, and say it with a shy smile, ‘Sorry. It’s a bit tricky. There is a knack to it’*.

The British tend to also use constant double meanings, such as ‘”Honestly I’m fine”  when they really mean “my whole world has collapsed”, which is part of their whole “not wanting to cause a fuss*” character.’ Perhaps more importantly for a non-native speaker of British English is when this reticence is transferred to the workplace.


Everyone today realises that using capital letter is an email the same as shouting at someone and is not polite etiquette. So how would a Brit signal their displeasure in an email? One way they would do it is by using some or all of the following expressions, which to a Brit’s ears makes their email sound cross, but to someone else it could give them room for manoeuvre!

“As discussed”, “I thought we agreed”, “Regards” (rather than the more polite Best or Kind regards, – although it might just be that we have used the latter often and a shortcutting the phrase now, but you would have to read through the other key expressions to see whether the writer is angry or lazy! – “Thanks”, “I was under the impression”, “FYI“, “As per my email”. All would seem innocuous to anyone not brought up in the system and can lead to misunderstandings that can have consequences further down the line;

When Rob Temple was putting together his blog on what he calls ‘Very British Problems’ he came up with numerous examples of where understanding the British need for reticence is necessary for translating what is being really said. If a Brit asks if you ‘Fancy a* quick drink after work?”  the translation is ‘Fancy 6-8 hours of drinking?’ This reticence is a trait that appears again and again. He writes: ‘Meanings of “maybe”. 1 –“ No.’

Mr Temple also gives his translation of other commonly heard expressions and their meanings.

  • ‘”That’s not quite what happened” – Translation: Your version of events is more fictional than Harry Potter.’
  • Making “After you” sound  a bit threatening
  • “I’ll have a word with him.” Translation: I won’t say anything

So next time you are in contact with someone who speaks English, make sure you know where they are from. Sometimes “Sorry” does not actually mean that at all. Sorry about that!


  • Stiff upper lip = rester impertable
  • There is a knack to it = avoir le don de faire (quelquechose)
  • To cause a fuss = faire des histoires
  • FYI (for your information) = pour votre information
  • Fancy a … est ce que vous avez envie de…



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