This subject is possibly getting tedious, so I apologise. I know I have mentioned it previously and I probably will again. One of the most difficult areas of communication is with non-British English speakers. We are, indeed, divided by a common language.
I love reflecting on my British culture and how it has shaped me. Living in a foreign country highlights the differences and nuances of your culture that you normally take for granted. You also have to negotiate your own values and how they fit into your new setting. It’s helpful to know about your own culture as well as the ones you are interacting with. You are better able to pin-point why you respond to certain situations and why you feel the way you do.
Remember, with culture and any of these points, it is highly contextual and varies significantly from situation to situation and person to person. These are broad brushstrokes. It is a bit of a long read, so I have provided a summary at the end. Feel free to skip to it, but it may lose some of the nuance.
Privacy and personal boundaries
Two of the highest values in British culture is the sense of privacy and a need to respect personal boundaries. For example, when I told a Brazilian that no one talks to one another on public transport, he asked why were we so unfriendly. Actually, for Brits, that is being friendly. We assume the other passengers wish to maintain their personal space so we do not invade it. A small smile might be all you get and even that is a rare occurrence.
Therefore, you must be aware of this when communicating with British people. British people may not want to share details about something with you. Also as a result, English people may ask fewer questions about something and not seem interested. They are probably interested, but don’t want to seem nosy.
Communication in Britain can seem direct at times, but there will be a lot of indirect communication that goes alongside it that can easily be missed.
The implied meaning of words are extremely important. In fact, you can assume that any implied meaning is the actual intended meaning. Therefore, you have to be careful that there aren’t any unpalatable implied meanings behind what you say. Sometimes, our indirect communication goes as far to say the opposite to what we actually mean. One perfect example is the phrase, “I’ll think about it.” We say that when the only thinking we will be doing is reflecting on what a ridiculous suggestion it was. We’ve already made our minds up and we profoundly disagree. But we don’t want to insult you by telling you that.
You have to remember, this is not disingenuous and we are not lying as those not familiar with British culture might assume. A British person being told, “I’ll think about it,” knows perfectly well what it means. We just forget that those from other cultures (especially when English is their first language) will not pick up on the contextual cues that go with it.
There are certain subjects that are embarrassing and difficult to discuss. These are some of them:
- Personal relationships
You need to tread carefully when negotiating these subjects.
So, there are various ways to navigate these aspects of communication though.
When starting a conversation, ask general questions that don’t ask for details. Remember, you need to respect the other person’s privacy and personal boundaries. Some examples include, “Do you have any plans this weekend?” as opposed to “What are you doing this weekend?”; “Did you have a good holiday?” or “How was your holiday?” rather than “What did you do on your holiday?” The first type of questions allows your conversation partner to be as vague or as detailed as they wish. The second type of question traps your conversation partner into giving details they may not actually want to give. (Also, “What are you doing this weekend?” is usually reserved as a precursor to making plans.)
So, this becomes a bit of a dance, where meaningless fillers replace actual meaningful questions. Remember, we are indirect communicators. The fillers are intended to move the conversation on, but in a non-invasive way. Then gradually, you work towards the details.
“How was your weekend?
“Not bad actually.”
“Yes, we went to see my family.”
“Yeah, we took are kids to see their grandparents. We went to Corfe Castle for the day.”
“Yes, we went to this amazing little pub nearby. The food was delicious.”
“Yeah, we had the Sunday roast. The beef was pretty much perfect. And the roast potatoes were lovely. We could have done with a bit more gravy though.”
If you want to broach any of the taboo subjects, you have to take extra care. Let’s say, for example, a British friend is wearing a particularly dashing piece of knitwear. (All Brits love knitwear.) You want to find out how much it was. The easiest way to find out is simply ask another question then provide the cues until you get the details you want. So, for example, the conversation would go like this:
“That’s a lovely cardigan. Where did you buy it?”
“Oh, it was £35 at Topshop.”
You might possibly note that the price was offered pretty much straight away. This often what happens, as the “Where did you buy it?” is often heard as a non-threatening “How much was it?” If it doesn’t work straight away, you could try these techniques:
- Make a general comment about TopShop “Oh, I love the dresses in there.”
- Tell them about what you bought there, “I got some lovely shoes there for about £50”.
- Allude to the topic of money: “Topshop can be a bit expensive, but it’s usually worth the cost. Sometimes you can find real bargains too.”
Once they tell you the price, don’t criticise it: “Oh, that’s too much!” You will not be popular. The best response would be, “Oh, really? I love the colour.” You’ve got the information you want, then move off the awkward topic as quickly as possible.
If this doesn’t work, then there’s the “You don’t mind me asking how much it is?” which is where the speaker pretends to be asking for permission to ask a personal question by, in fact, asking the personal question. Usually, the British person will begrudgingly acquiesce and tell you.
British people will refuse a request or a suggestion as politely as possible. They will often make an excuse or use indirect communication. “I’ll get back to you” or “I’ll think about it” is often a no. In a case when making group decisions, ideas may be rejected by giving an alternative. For example
“Why don’t we go to Dominoes tonight?”
“What about TGI Friday’s?”
Alternatively, the British person may just agree for the sake of agreeing, even if it makes life difficult for them. Sometimes, it’s worth checking if that is the case.
Let them speak
British people often find talking loudly, effusively and interrupting inappropriate. In a group setting this can be difficult because the Brits sometimes go without an opportunity to speak up. There have been times that I’ve been in a meeting and I’ve been spoken over or not had an opportunity to raise a point. The subsequent silence does not usually mean that my point has been made, it probably means I’m livid.
“I’m sorry to bother you…” This is used when asking questions or even when making complaints. I have walked up to information desks, where the person’s actual job is to answer my question, and apologised for interrupting them whilst all they were doing was waiting for someone to come and ask a question.
“I’m sorry but…” This phrase preludes any complaint, expression of annoyance or outright disagreement. You may raise the volume of what you are saying a notch and place a small amount of emphasis on the words. This means we’re getting serious.
“Oh, by the way…” This will signal the most important but also the most awkward part of a conversation. In order to minimise any emotional impact, we make it seem inconsequential and trivial.
“Oh, sorry.” If you bump into someone, interrupt someone, get in someone’s way or hold someone up, then say sorry.
Do what you want, we’ll just grit our teeth anyway
As British people don’t respond effusively to annoyances or complain you will get away with a lot. We may not like you or what you did as a result, but we will rarely tell you. So, you can easily ignore all these rules and carry on regardless. We’ll just grit our teeth and smile throughout.
Summary and other useful tips
- Respect privacy and personal boundaries
- Don’t force Brits to give details
- Use filler phrases and filler questions to draw out more information
- Avoid taboos: politics, religion and relationships
- Brits will say “no” by offering alternatives
- Don’t interrupt
- Use “sorry” like confetti
- Don’t make a complaint unless absolutely necessary
- Don’t be too effusive or emotional
- Don’t come across as arrogant
- Be self-deprecating
I’ll be writing a British culture vs. Cambodian culture post soon.