Every so often, I ask what people want to know about Britain or the U.S., and every so often they answer. Zipfslaw wrote, “I’d love to know how to understand British understatement. Like, I’ve heard that ‘at your earliest convenience’ means ‘RIGHT NOW’,’ but I don’t really know how it all works.”
Neither do I, so I went running to my strange friend Dr. Google and found a 2001 Guardian article, which gives a memorable example of what happens when the British and non-British try to communicate.
During the Korean War, a British brigadier informed General Soule, his American superior in the U.N. joint command, “Things are a bit sticky, sir,”
He meant they were in serious trouble. “His men were outnumbered eight to one, stranded on every side by human waves of…attackers…. But Gen. Soule understood this to mean ‘We’re having a bit of rough and tumble but we’re holding the line’. Oh good, the general decided, no need to reinforce or withdraw them, not yet anyway.”
More than 500 British soldiers were captured and 59 were killed or missing. Only 39 escaped.
So, yes, I can see why Zipfslaw’s question is worth asking.
From the Guardian, I went to a site I never expected to visit, Debrett’s, which calls itself “the recognised authority on etiquette, influence and achievement.”
Yes, and modesty as well. Haven’t they heard about understatement? Well, sure they have and here’s what (as the recognized–note the American Z I’m using, please–authority) they say about it:
“A quality that is much revered – and exploited – by the British, understatement is frequently seen as being synonymous with good manners. Understatement is characterised by a number of negatives: a refusal to be effusive, overdramatic, emphatic or didactic. More direct remarks are frequently accompanied by tentative or provisional qualifications: ‘perhaps’, ‘it could be’, ‘I wonder if’, ‘maybe’. The overall effect is an aura of modest reticence, quiet understanding and considerate behaviour. Like self-deprecation, understatement is an attractive and effective quality, which is often more persuasive, and appealing, than a direct approach.
Understatement permeates British humour.”
So that’s the answer aimed at aristocrats and those anyone who wants to behave like aristocrats. J., however, tells me that Northerners and the working class in general are generally more direct than the upper class(es) and people from the Southeast. (I’m not sure where that leaves the Southwest, never mind Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Midlands, since I didn’t think to ask, but let’s keep this simple.) Notherners and the working class may be the only reason anyone on this island ever gets out of a burning building: Everyone looks around for someone bold enough to shout, “Fire!” instead of murmuring, “It may soon become a bit warmer here.”
J. told me about a scenario in which an aristocrat offers a working class person a lift, expecting to be politely turned down. But the working class person thinks it’s a genuine offer and accepts it.
Inevitably, it would be raining. I’d have accepted too. The aristocrat would be put out but too polite to say so, and I’d have no idea I just broke the rules. Subtlety’s wasted on me.
At roughly the same time, a different friend whose name also starts with J. sent an email saying something I’d written wasn’t half bad, then added, “(British upper class understatement from 1930s). In fact its a jolly decent letter.
Before you decide that expanding your head so it encompasses understatement is all it takes to understand people over here, I’ve also heard classic British overstatement. Friends periodically tell me they’re gasping for a cup of tea, although I have yet to hear an actual gasp. Or that they’re perishing for one, although so far none of they have died when no tea materialized. But then I don’t (thank whatever laws of the universe control these things) hang out in Debrett’s kind of circles.
I’d add more examples here but the only Briitish overstatements I’ve been able to think of involve tea. That’s worth pondering.
In the U.S., Minnesotans are known for their understatement. I’m working from memory, which is an invitation to disaster, but Howard Mohr’s How to Talk Minnesotan had, I think, a segment about a guy using a welding torch near a car’s gas tank. What does the Minnesotan watching him say? “Y’know, a feller might not want to do that.”
So all I can say in answer to Zipfslaw’s question is, Consult your translation chart. It’s incomplete, but that may be a result of classic British understatement.
Apologies to anyone who read this a week and a half ago when I accidentally posted a draft. Since then, I’ve moved three commas, put two of them back where they started, removed a stray URL, and added a photo. You can see, it’s a massive improvement.
I’ve also added J. emailed comment, which is a genuine improvement.
Finally, this P.S. gives me an excuse to mention another crucial cultural difference between the U.S. and Britain that the Guardian quote reminded me of: We do the dash differently. American publishing uses what’s called an em dash–a dash the width of the letter M–with no space on either side. British publishing uses an en dash–the width of the letter N–with a space on either side.
People, this matters.
As always, I welcome your questions and comments. They take me places I wouldn’t have thought to go otherwise.