Have you ever wondered why we can’t easily understand the English? (I’m not talking of the Scots and the Irish, who lead you close to tears, or the Americans, who haven’t spoken it for years!) A delightful email sent by my cousin Lakshman Menon might just have the answer.
No doubt their accent is part of the problem as is their intonation. However, Lakshman’s email suggests the real problem lies deeper. The English often don’t say what they mean. Now, not for a moment am I suggesting they lie or deceive. It’s just that they use words rather differently to the way we do. Their expression is more subtle and even, on occasion, simply suggestive. This flummoxes us.
Let me give you a few examples. When an Englishman says “that’s not bad” what he actually means is it’s rather good. But when he says “quite good” he’s telling you it’s a bit disappointing. This is their euphemistic style of speech. Ours, in contrast, is hyperbolic.
Often, however, their language is seemingly more misleading. When an Englishman says “I’ll bear it in mind” he’s actually telling you that he won’t. When he says “I’m sure it’s my fault” he is, in fact, implying it’s yours. Here, the opposite of what he says is what he means. This is politeness or, at least, politesse.
Actually, there are many other examples that capture how delicately an Englishman can tell you he disagrees with you or even that you’re bonkers. For instance, when he says “with the greatest respect” let me assure you what is likely to follow will have little respect for the position you’ve taken or the view you’ve expressed.
Similarly, when he says “that’s a brave proposal” he is, to be honest, saying it’s foolhardy, if not insane. Indeed when he comments on what you have just told him with the words “very interesting”, don’t take that at face value. What he means is it’s arrant nonsense.
Many is the time when an Indian has been misled by an Englishman saying “you must come for dinner”. Normally you would expect an invitation to follow and a date to be set. Unfortunately, this is not an invitation. It’s more likely to be a way of avoiding extending one. The dinner is unlikely to happen any time soon.
However, one has to live in their country to learn and appreciate how artfully the English use their language. The trick is to realise they are never blunt and upfront. Instead they slide around the problem, hoping you’ll get the hint. So when you hear the words “I hear what you say” prepare yourself to be ignored or forgotten.
When your boss or a client says “could we consider some other options” what he’s indicating is that he doesn’t like your idea. Much the same is true — but only more politely put — when you’re told “I almost agree”. Actually, your interlocutor doesn’t agree at all.
It’s this circumlocution that simply foxes us. The understatement is, of course, alien to our style. But saying the opposite of what you mean and yet being understood is an art form the Brits have perfected. It’s almost the precise opposite of how we speak. We usually say the obvious and ram it home with repetition.
Finally, there’s the dear Reverend Spooner. If he were to read the above and call me “a shining wit”, thank you would not be the appropriate response. Can you guess why?
The views expressed are personal