Discovering the English language code

When I first arrived in London, I was lucky enough to share a flat with two Englishmen. As they only spoke English it was rather a good school for me, wanting to learn English and the culture behind the language.

There were certain things though, that puzzled me at first, and I could not fathom: it took me a while to understand that English speak in code. I was reminded of this not such a long time ago, at a reception where I met up with an English acquaintance I had not seen for a while. We talked about the weather and other such weighty matters, and when it was time to part company:

- It was nice to see you again.
- Likewise. We must have dinner sometimes. 
- That would be nice.

Of course, for the English, or someone who understands the English culture, it is quite clear that ‘we must have dinner sometimes’ certainly does not mean a forthcoming dinner date, the person is just being polite.

This is one of many coded expressions that are used in English. You will find below a table with of some the expressions used, what you understand, and what is actually meant.

Using coded language is the English way of indirectly being direct. By that I mean in communication, British will use downgraders to a large extent. Downgraders are words that will soften any criticism or any negative message that one wants to get across, such as ‘kind of’, ‘sort of’, ‘a little’, ‘a bit’, ‘slightly’.

The understatement, widely used in English, is also a downgrader which will moderate the emotion, as it is not done to show too much emotion. If, for example, in a project that is in progress you say, ‘we are not quite there yet’, what you really mean is ‘this is nowhere near completion and I am upset about it’.

This is in strong contrast with, say the French culture, where people easily give negative feedback, quite bluntly and honestly.

British have become past masters at using downgraders and the understatement, resulting in often being misunderstood by others who have been left a little bewildered by such language. It can create misunderstandings and communication breakdown in teams or intra-departmental communications in international companies Team effectiveness can be improved and so can workings between groups or departments if its members are aware of the cultural differences and understand how to take advantage of the cultural diversity.

Further, it can make negotiation more complicated, creating monologues between the two parties where there should be dialogues. Again, awareness of your own and of the other side’s culture will produce a more satisfactory negotiations outcome.

The use of the downgraders and of the understatement may also have left others thinking that British are not trustworthy, speaking with a forked tongue. It is said that the English will rarely lie to you, although he may not tell you the whole truth.

Some codes

What the British say What others understand What the British mean
I hear what you say He accepts my point of view I disagree and do not want to discuss it further
With the greatest respect... He is listening to me I think you are an idiot
This is not quite what I had in mind He only wants me to make a few changes This is total rubbish
Could we consider some other options They have not yet decided I don't like your idea
I only have a few minor comments He has found a few typos Please re-write completely
That's not bad That's poor That's good
Quite good Quite good A bit disappointing
That is a very brave proposal He thinks I have courage You are insane
Very interesting They are impressed That is clearly nonsense
I would suggest... Think about the idea, but do what you like Do it or be prepared to justify yourself
I agree with you up to a point He's not far from agreement I don't agree at all
Oh, incidentally/ by the way That is not very important The primary purpose of our discussion is...
I was a bit disappointed that It doesn't really matter I am annoyed that
I'll bear it in mind They will probably do it I've forgotten it already
I'm sure it's my fault Why do they think it was their fault? It's your fault
You must come for dinner I will get an invitation soon It's not an invitation. I'm just being polite

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