By Lee Hyon-soo
When I was a college student in the 1960s, I had the uncommon privilege of learning English from American professors in Korea. By the time I graduated from college, I had become reasonably proficient in English and was able to land a job at an American bank that was doing business in Korea. By working with my American colleagues, I polished up on my English.
Later on, my life took an unexpected turn. By an amazing stroke of luck, I was hired by a Canadian bank for a position at its head office. Upon arriving in Canada, I was assigned to this bank’s international banking division which was staffed by people from diverse backgrounds. Some of my peers were British and their manner of speaking was distinctively different from that of Americans and Canadians. By rubbing shoulders with them, I got to know the art of British understatement, which fascinated me.
Understatement is a characteristic associated with British English, and it plays a role in shaping the communication style and cultural nuances of British speakers. It involves expressing something in a way that downplays its significance, often to the point of making it seem less important or dramatic than it actually is. Instead of using direct, explicit language, British understatement relies on subtlety, irony and dry humor. Here are some examples of British understatement.
When it is raining heavily, a British person might say, “It’s a bit wet today,” instead of saying “It’s pouring down rain.”
When it is sizzling hot, a British person might say, “It’s a bit warm today, isn’t it?” instead of saying “It’s unbearably hot today.”
If a host has prepared a delicious meal, the guests might say, “It’s not bad,” implying that it is actually quite good. The highest compliment is “It’s not bad at all.”
When someone sings very well, a typical British response might be “You’re not half bad at singing,” suggesting that the singer is actually quite talented.
If you compliment a British woman’s outfit, she might respond with “Oh, I just threw this on,” downplaying the effort she put into looking good.
In heavy traffic, a British driver might comment, “It’s a bit busy on the roads today,” even if the traffic is almost at a standstill.
Instead of directly stating that something is going wrong, a British person might say, “There’s a bit of an issue we need to address.”
Having spilled a drink, a British person might say, “I seem to have made a bit of a mess,” even if there is a significant spill.
Instead of saying “It’s terrible,” a British person might say, “It could be improved.”
In a discussion, a British person might say, “I’m not entirely sure I agree,” which indicates a stronger disagreement than the words suggest.
Talking about her marriage problem, Princess Diana allegedly said, “Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”
The effectiveness of British understatement often depends on context, tone and the relationship between the speakers.
British understatement is deeply ingrained in British culture and is often used to convey politeness, humility and a sense of not wanting to impose on others with strong opinions or emotions. It is a way of maintaining a sense of decorum and avoiding any potential awkwardness that might arise from more direct or intense expressions.
British understatement is a unique and subtle form of communication that plays a significant role in British humor, social interactions and the country’s cultural identity.
Incidentally, a British friend of mine helped me write this article by providing the requisite information.
The writer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired banker and the author of “Ramblings of A Wanderer.”