I was once on an intercity bus sitting behind two Polish men. One of them was talking on his mobile phone, loudly discussing a business deal in English.
At the end of the conversation, he said have a nice day and hung up, switched to Polish and started talking to his companion. He described the deal and how much he would earn, and sounded very pleased with the arrangement. But his companion, who was older…and apparently wiser, wasn’t convinced. He turned to his companion and said in a calm, quiet voice:
‘Just remember… the Angol is not your friend!’
I was shocked. It was a generalization. He meant all Angols.
Being an Angol* myself, I don’t believe that British people are faultless, but on the whole, I think we’re trustworthy.
So why did this Pole say ‘remember, the Angol is not your friend’? Why did lean forward as if he was giving his companion a message that would protect him? Why did he use a hushed tone of voice that suggested he was talking about a dangerous alien race? Why would he suggest that Angols only pretend to be your friend?
Well, there is one thing about British people that doesn’t inspire trust – our communication style.
While Poles speak directly and express their opinions honestly, Brits speak very indirectly and hide their opinions in vague language. From experience I know that this can be confusing and frustrating for Poles.
I remember a Polish colleague once asked me ‘what does it mean when a British person says ‘I’m not impressed’? If you could put it on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 meaning it’s awful and 10 meaning it’s fantastic. Would it be a 7 or a 2?’
‘Oh, that would be a 2’ I told him. ‘It’s like saying that something is ‘very bad’.
‘Why didn’t he just say that!’ he replied, clearly frustrated.
There are numerous articles translating expressions used by British people into normal language. For instance, when a British person says I agree up to a point, it actually means that they disagree with you. Or when they say that something could be better, it means that it’s very poor. And if you cook a meal and serve it to a British person who says that it tastes interesting…just throw away that recipe!
In his book The Right Mind*², the psychologist Robert Orstein tells a story of an American businessman visiting the UK. The businessman had just given a presentation to a group of British directors. After the presentation, one of the British directors stood up and said the following:
‘I’m not sure I, or anyone here, will agree completely with absolutely everything the speaker has said, but we thank him for his trouble in coming here to attempt to make a difficult idea possibly more clear to us.’
The Brits in the audience were shocked, but the American kept smiling. He didn’t get it.
In British English, the above sentence basically means ‘everything this guy said is bullshit.’ But British people rarely give feedback in such direct language. Foreigners (Americans included) find it very difficult to understand a British person when they are giving feedback in such an indirect style.
Growing up in the UK, you just naturally learn to communicate this way. It wasn’t until I lived abroad that I realised how confusing this can be.
So, can you trust the Angols? Well, I have to admit that the British style of giving feedback raises this very question. If we don’t say what we mean…explicitly and honestly…then how can you trust us? Why wouldn’t you believe that we’re trying to deceive you?
To defend the Angols, I’d like to point out that we’re just trying to be polite. In the UK it’s considered rude to express your opinions too directly.
So if an Angol doesn’t share his or her opinions very directly…if they confuse you with very opaque feedback…don’t worry, he or she is just trying to be polite
…because they do want to be your friend!
*I am from Scotland, but understand that the Polish term Angol refers to people from Britain and not just England.
*²p102, The Right Mind: Making Sense of the Hemispheres, Robert Ornstein, Hardcore Brace & Company 1997