Communicating with Brits

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.

Indirect communication

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.

Taboos

There are certain subjects that are embarrassing and difficult to discuss. These are some of them:

  • Money
  • Politics
  • Religion
  • Personal relationships

You need to tread carefully when negotiating these subjects.

Practical tips

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.”

“Oh, great.”

“Yes, we went to see my family.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah, we took are kids to see their grandparents. We went to Corfe Castle for the day.”

“Sounds lovely.”

“Yes, we went to this amazing little pub nearby. The food was delicious.”

“Oh?”

“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.

Hearing “no”

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.

Useful phrases

“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

Other resources

I’ll be writing a British culture vs. Cambodian culture post soon.

FAQ Thursday: What are the biggest challenges?

I love my time in Cambodia. It’s great and the country and its people are beautiful. So often I am overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude that I am here. However, that’s not to say there are challenges. Here are some of the biggest ones.

3. Cultural clashes

It probably hasn’t escaped your attention, but I am English. In fact, I am quintessentially so. If you wanted a stereotype of an introverted English man, look no further. This means that I am awkward, embarrassed, and uptight. I obey a needlessly endless string of social rules and conventions and social politeness and etiquette is relatively important.

What is difficult is that it is easy to forget that other English speakers are not necessarily English in culture. They probably have lower blood pressure and negotiate social situations with a lot less stress as a result. However, despite the shared language, their relaxed attitudes and happiness to discuss various subjects sometimes translates poorly into English culture. It can come across as overly familiar, nosey or insensitive.

2. Miscommunication

My Khmer is developing, but it’s at the stage where actually it sometimes makes it worse. When I was first learning, what I understood was so limited, that I could often rely on the fact that I probably misunderstood the communication, or wasn’t able to make myself understood. This meant hand gestures, repetition and double checking were necessary. Therefore, often everything was tedious but you seemed to have a better sense of when you arrived at an understanding (or when you didn’t, which was the more frequent of the two scenarios).

What I understand has grown and what I don’t understand has shrunk a bit. However, this means that often the two parts overlap. Sometimes, I think I have understood, but actually I didn’t. This is this language danger zone. You go away satisfied that everything is fine, but find out later that you have unwittingly unleashed a disaster of confusion. I accidentally refused an invite to a wedding because I thought the guy was asking something else.

I can’t wait to get to the part where what I understand is far larger than what I don’t.

1. Communicating with home

This is probably one the hardest parts of living abroad. And it’s not me, it you. Well, actually it’s communicating with you.

Life in Cambodia is different, both in big, drastic ways and in subtle, difficult to perceive ways. Even if you have been to South East Asia or Cambodia itself, the day-to-day reality can be a lot different to the tourist’s or visitor’s experiences. When communicating with people who have never been, it can be even harder.

For example, let’s say I wanted to tell you about my visit to a market. The word market possibly conjures up lots of different images. For the typical westerner, it might mean a farmers’ market, full or organic food and artisanal breads and shiny round wheels of cheeses. The market in the UK is a middle-class day out. It’s clean; it’s sterile; it’s a bit dull.

Gerald England / Mrs Kirkham’s Cheeses

In Cambodia, the market is the heartbeat of daily life. You can buy most things at the market, especially the bigger ones such as Central Market or Orussey Market. It will have fruit, vegetables, clothes, shoes, motorcycle parts, jewellery, souvenirs, homeware, incense, flowers, stationery, books and stands selling hot food. They are great, but they are hot, sweaty, and often really smelly. If it’s outside, you get the fumes of motorbikes and tuk tuks as they idle while their riders negotiate prices; inside the air is fetid with the smell of fish and blood and dank water that runs down the open gutters through centre of the market. The experience is also dependent on which market you go to.

Orussey Market

To communicate these differences and the experiences are lengthy and time consuming. The market is just one example. My walk to work, a general journey through Phnom Penh, a Cambodian mall, a Cambodian village, a Cambodian home, the Cambodian countryside: these are all experiences that are quite difficult to articulate. It sometimes feels that just to have a meaningful conversation, you have to spend an hour explaining and describing the nuances of Cambodia. And that’s hard and can be isolating.

Also, there’s sometimes an unintentional power to words. Cambodia is great. I also know most of my friends here feel the same way. But sometimes we moan and we vent and we laugh about our experiences (such as nearly being stampeded by water buffalo on the way to work, a mosquito flying up our nose, the panic induced by thinking your air-conditioner is broken, getting misunderstood at a market, ending up at the wrong destination in a PassApp). But they are not really that significant. Yes, they can be annoying and sometimes it gets on top of us when we are tired or there is one too many mosquitoes buzzing around our head. But it’s just a fleeting complaint. We dust ourselves off (sometimes literally- Cambodia is really dusty in the dry season) and carry on. We don’t cry (every time); we don’t self-pity for too long; we don’t dwell. We let it out; we move on and we do the same again tomorrow.

However, often, by communicating it to people back home, suddenly it’s become something bigger than you intended. It’s suddenly the front-page news or the big issue. But that’s not how you wanted it to work out. A simple rant or joke can sound like a life-time trauma to those not in the midst of it.

Now, it’s my blog, so I can say what I want to. Sometimes, the hardest thing is the radio silence from the home end. It feels like we’ve set up a one-way radio system. I transmit updates, details and newsletters, and blogs, and Facebook posts. I actually have to work quite hard at it. A blog post may take an hour or so. The Fact Fridays or Words of the Week take 30 minutes. The newsletters can take up to three hours. Just a “It was great to hear from you!” is all it takes to feel like someone is out there and interested. Otherwise, all I’m getting is static at this end and it makes me wonder if it’s worth doing. Let me know you’ve read it. Ask questions (I know that’s hard, sometimes the lack of knowledge means it’s really difficult to know what to ask). Find out about something and ask me my thoughts on it. Challenge me to do something. Invite me on a Skype date. Tell me three things that have happened to you in the last week. It doesn’t have to be huge, but just let me know you are out there.