Characteristics of British communication

The complete Oxford Dictionary contains 500,000 words. This may easily lead to the conclusion that the repertoire of linguistic expressions is very differentiatet and varied in English. Furthermore, there are approximately 340 million people worldwide today, who speak English as their mother tongue not to mention all those who speak English as a second language.

No wonder, that the British, who can basically travel the whole world and continue speaking their mother tongue, feel very comfy due to this fact. Surely, you can deduce a certain amount of self-confidence of the British soul from this which should not be neglected, since the lingusitic facts speak for themselves. And since the feeling of comfort is very popular in Britain there is a wide range of possibilities for side stepping in order to linguistically dodge unpleasent matters. For example, instead of saying you need to go to the toilet, there are several euphemisms such as ›comfort break‹, ›make use of the facilities‹ or nice excuses, such as ›wash hands‹ or ›answer the call‹.

There is more than one way to skin a cat

The British are individualists inside. They like flexibility, they like to be able to choose, they like options. This is also reflected in their communication. The British very rarely think in terms of black and white but rather in grey tones. They don’t like to be driven into a corner nor to be pressured, they don’t like to commit themselves for eternity.

Even if you have a clear idea of something, don’t emphasise this too much in your communication. Showyourself flexible in thinking and acting. Have several options ready and don’t spend too much time elaborating on your idea in the beginning. It is better to put out a few feelers to see wether your idea is well received without revealing that this is your best option. If you offer various options you are most likely going to be asked which option you would favour. This is the moment to uncover your tendency. However, still don’t overdo it: The more you argue in order to convince the more sceptical your British counterpart will get. Less is more!

Coded speech

It is of vital importance to keep to the restraint of going toe-to-toe with others! The British like to feel comfortable even when disagreeing. They also like to meet at least in a neutral atmosphere in subsequent encounters. Actually, this is nothing different from keeping face, as it is found in Asian cultures though in far more distinct and varied ways.

They like for everything to go smoothly in terms of language, without creating a stir or getting on the wrong side of someone. This is why inconveniences are ›wrapped up‹ in friendly words. This way of communicating is called coded speech. In this respect it is not enough to say ›please‹, ›thank you‹, ›you’re welcome‹ and ›sorry‹ as often as possible. The following example sentences in this chapter will give you an idea of all the facets of this indirect communication style.


The British apologise permanently. Even if something isn’t their fault:

›Excuse me!‹ is used if you are about to do something that will cause inconveniences. If e.g. you have to get something straight/correct something: ›Excuse me, that’s not quite right!‹ Also, if you have to leave a meeting early or you need to get through a crowd of people ›Excuse me, please!‹ is appropriate.

›Sorry!‹ is correct if you have already done something that has caused inconveniences. If e.g. you have stepped on someones foot or you arrive late at a meeting, you say: ›Sorry for being late.‹

You chooose ›I’am afraid!‹ if you are about to say something unpleasant and are aware of it: ›I’m afraid, I’m going to have to say no.‹

›I/We apologise!‹ is formal and can often be found in correspondence e.g. if something went wrong: ›I apologise for any inconvenience, this has caused to you.‹ Or: ›Please accept my sincere apologies.‹ ›Apologies!‹ is also used frequently if one is late.

Postponing appointments

If you would like to postpone an appointment the following phrases will help you:

›I think Monday is a bit too optimistic. Tuesday is more like it.‹
›I can do Tuesday instead. How does that sound to you?‹

Give your reasons:

›I’ve been tied up with a computer course all week. Would this coming
Monday be possible for you?‹

Establishing clarity

The meaning of ›I don’t understand‹ may often be correct, however, it sounds very impolite.

There are better alternatives if you want to make sure everyone is on the same page:

›I’m not sure, we’re actually talking about the same thing. What do you mean by …?‹
›Could you explain that one more time, please? I’m not sure, I’ve truly understood you.‹
›Just to make sure, that there are no misunderstandings. You think we should …? Or do you mean we shouldn’t …?‹
›Just to make sure, that we are still on the same page.‹

Sending reminders

No matter what you need to remind someone of – a pending reply, a report, a due payment, an appointment – a great method is to ask questions instead of making statements. Moreover, offer your help, simply out of politeness. Reminding of appointments:

›We’re looking forward to your visit tomorrow. Is there anything, you would like us to prepare for you?‹
›Only one week to go, so this is just to ask you, if everything is on track?‹
›Are we still on for Friday next week?‹
›HR need the report tomorrow. Do you think you can get it to them on time, or is there anything, I could do?‹

Reminding of something that remains to be done:

›I am not sure, but didn’t you want to get that document to me by Friday? If you need further details, please let me know.‹
›I just wanted to check, whether you have everything you need to provide the necessary information?‹
›Do you think it would be still possible to get this done by Monday?‹

Voicing opinions or criticism

When it comes to voicing your opinion directness isn’t very popular in Britain. Hence, you ought better not state your view as a fact but rather phrase it moderately.

Instead of ›I find, that …‹ or ›My opinion is, that …‹ it is better to say:

›Perhaps we should consider…‹
›Could I propose, that we …‹
›Could I suggest, that we take a devil’s advocate position and consider doing exactly the opposite?‹

As you can see in the ultimate example sentence the British e.g. also like to seek a fictional third person (the devil’s advocate) to express their objections.

In terms of criticism they also maintain a low profile. They want their counterpart to feel comfortable and that’s why they use the one or the other ›wrapping‹ to communicate negative feedback. Since it is frowned upon in Great Britain to assign guilt to other people they also often rhetorically blame themselves.

Typical sentence beginnings when voicing criticism are:

›It’s probably me, …‹
›I might be wrong, …‹
›I see where you are coming from … ‹
›Good point. Have you also thought of …‹
›I might not be up to date …‹
›I can’t find the sales figures in your report.‹
›Is there any reason why … hasn’t been done?‹

You should, however, also voice your positive view as often as possible. If e.g. a meeting went well, express this at the end with a kind sentence:

›Well, I think our session was quite productive. What do you think, James?‹
›I certainly think my trip has been worthwhile. Do you feel we’ve left anything uncovered?‹

In general, the British like to praise frequently. Praise functions as motivatio in any situation.

Iris Engler

+49 (0)711 722 468 44
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