The truth behind British (im)politeness

August 16, 2016 12:00 pm

High-Change-in-Bond-Street-GillrayThe British are renowned for their reserve and, at times excessive, politeness. Specificities such as apologising whilst complaining, their stiff upper lip and extreme social awkwardness, have led to the development of a kind of self-depreciating and sarcastic humour, cornerstone of the British society. The stereotype of what it means to be British has been satirised widely throughout the years both in television, as epitomised for instance by actor Hugh Grant, and in literature. Here are some examples:

“There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.” – Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

“Is not general incivility the very essence of love?” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

“To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness” – Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

“My brother Toby, quoth she, is going to be married to Mrs. Wadman. “Then he will never,” quoth my father, “be able to lie diagonally in his bed again as long as he lives.”- Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy



In her book Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, social anthropologist Kate Fox deliberately bumped into people on the London tube in order to observe their reactions – almost invariably they apologised. This strange and seemingly misplaced politeness is an excellent example of the quirks of Britishness – a culture governed by a complex set of unspoken rules and codes of behaviour both of which may seem particularly bizarre to non-British people.

Conversely to this world-renowned British politeness, however, the Brits also seem to have the knack of insulting you to your face while remaining decorous, a type of linguistic diplomacy which even foreigners with a perfect grasp of the English language may find hard to decipher.  Late journalist and writer George Mikes once wrote jokingly: “The English have no soul; they have the understatement instead”.

Indeed, communicating with a British person entails having the ability to understand not only what is explicitly stated, but also what is implied. Being perceptive is incredibly important, particularly for foreigners who stem from cultures used to a more direct communication approach, for example the Italians. Rather than directly confronting someone, or taking the risk of offending, the Brits may expect you to pick up on subtle social cues, for as G K Chesterton once said, for an English person ‘a yawn is a silent shout’.

Below is a table which may help you to navigate this socio-linguistic minefield:


While this tendency to hide their true feelings and veil their thoughts in words may seem rather insincere, it must, above all, be seen as an art-form, a certain subtlety or a way of maintaining the propriety of the speaker. Like the Japanese and the Chinese culture, the British culture is a ‘high-context culture’ (as defined by Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book Beyond Culture), where non-verbal behaviours, tone, expression and background are as important as words to successful communication.

What’s also important to remember, is that every culture and subculture is governed by its own rules, not imposed from outside, but rather by standards and practices which have evolved from within. When we are born into a particular society, we learn those rules almost unawares. We intuitively understand what constitutes expected behaviour in almost any situation within our own social or cultural group, and we identify ‘outsiders’ by the way they deviate from these unspoken norms.

Therefore the next time you have a feeling that you are being insulted by a Brit, or you see one looking incredibly uncomfortable surrounded by his loud and outspoken European counterparts, just remember that even within Europe culture clash is very much a real phenomenon, but it is this cultural diversity which makes our continent so fascinating and beautiful.

If you would like to know more about some of the societal norms respected in the U.K., here is an interesting source outlining the basics of British cultural etiquette.


Written by Iweta Kalinowska
Communication Trainee at TermCoord

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