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A table came out recently to help translate common British phrases; apparently we’re too polite to say what we really mean. This, in itself, is worth a discussion because in my two-plus decades in the U.S. I find Americans to be far less direct in many situations. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve come out of a meeting with no real clue as to what went on. Surprisingly though, I also saw many similarities between Brits and Americans when reading the table. Yes, we can be passive-aggressive on both sides of the Pond.
“I hear what you say…”
The table says that in the U.K. it means, “I disagree and do not want to discuss it further.” In the U.S. in my corporate experience at least, it is often said by the power wielder, who pretends to listen to all sides of an issue but in reality has already made up his/her mind; it means, “Nice try, and now I’m going to ram my decision through anyway.”
Here are a few more American sayings that are wolves in sheep’s clothing.
“Just checking in…”
Depending on the relationship, this can mean, “Why is it always me checking up on you? Are you aware that I’ve been lying in bed half dead with flu for the last week?” or (from a co-worker) “I asked you to send me the report three days ago. If you haven’t been half dead with flu, I want to know why it’s late.” Whatever the situation, you’re not being “checked up on.” You’re being guilt-tripped, and a certain level of groveling is expected.
“It’d be great if you could… “
…spontaneously combust before the end of the sentence because this request is actually a fait accompli! Whether it’s a work situation, a school volunteer project or a neighborly favor, there’s no getting out of it. I mean, what are you going to say? The better part of your nature is being appealed to. Warning: while you think you can come up with an excuse, you will already have been trapped into publicly establishing that your schedule is wide-open.
This quite often follows the above trap and ends the discussion before you can extricate yourself. The speaker is saying “Great, she has no idea how much work is involved/how much less she could have paid; let’s get the heck out of here before she realizes.” In meetings, notebooks will be snapped shut and chairs pushed away before the word is fully enunciated. Another fait accompli.
The next two are interchangeable and often directed at us expat Brits:
“I love it! You just don’t CARE, do you?”
This usually follows a fairly huge cultural faux pas. Loosely translated, it means, “What the hell did you just do? I’m dying of embarrassment here. Don’t ever do that again.” This can be after you’ve left a meager tip, stuffed your handkerchief up your sleeve or announced that children should be seen and not heard. It is also used when Americans aren’t quite sure whether you’re joking or not (as with the children comment above), and is accompanied by a nervous laugh rather than barely disguised outrage.
“Oh, you can get away with it, you’re British.”
This means that an American wouldn’t be seen dead wearing what you’re wearing or doing whatever it is you’ve sunk to, and what’s more, s/he is also going to make sure everyone within fifty yards knows you’re foreign and therefore haven’t a clue. This was first said to me twenty years ago in Dallas when I’d stepped out in white shoes a couple of weeks after Labor Day.
And, if you’re in the South, the real zinger…
Bless her heart!
We’ve discussed this before (in the comments section here), and although it is sometimes benign, the general consensus is that, in the South at least, it’s a bit of a put-down, effectively allowing the speaker to slag someone off without recrimination. “Bless her heart, she always looks like she’s been dragged through a hedge backwards.” I mean, how can you infer spite when the victim has been blessed prior to annihilation? As writer and blogger Heather Rainier says “Truly evil Southern women can do this with a smile and walk away leaving you hemorrhaging.”
Which country do you think exhibits more passive-agressiveness?
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Toni Summers Hargis is a Brit who has lived in the USA since 1990. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and children and writes about US/UK matters when not putting out domestic fires. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom, (St. Martin's Press). She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV explaining British things to Americans.