Many years ago, in one of my many professional incarnations, I taught English to foreign students. Some found the English Language fairly easy to learn, others less so. However one thing that always caused confusion was when I explained that often when an English speaker says something, they actually mean something totally different. I don’t know how much this is an issue in other languages – my grasp of other languages is so embarrassingly bad that I can barely tussle with the literal meaning let along any subtext.
In English, as spoken by a Brit, however, subtext and etiquette play a huge part in the language and failing to see the subtext is a minefield which many have accidentally wandered into.
Take the innocuous “You must come for dinner, let’s get a date in the diary” or “I’ll give you a call”. Woe betide you should think that is what the person actually means. Don’t make the mistake of fishing out your diary or worse still waiting by the phone for it to ring. When we say these things what we actually mean is “my diary is full for the next six months” and “I have absolutely no intention of ringing you”. We’re not being rude, it’s just that it is much easier to be faux-polite and to exchange the required formalities than it is to say “Bye then, I’ll see you around” which is what we really mean.
The British are for ever saying “sorry” or “I’m sure it’s my fault”. This is not because we think we are at fault; confusingly quite the opposite. Saying “sorry” is an automatic response for us Brits. “Sorry” in this context is not remotely intended as an apology but again is a form of politeness. Probably the worst thing you could say in response would be “apology accepted” – be warned, there was no apology intended. It’s just words.
This politeness is acutely apparent at the British dinner party. When presented with flowers or a gift by a guest, the hostess will inevitably murmur “Oh you shouldn’t have…”. This is another example of where what we say is actually the opposite of what we mean. What your hostess actually means is “Yes you should have bought me something, I’ve been up since 6am cooking your bloody dinner and sweating blood, sweat and tears over Nigella and Jamie Oliver”.
A common mistake that non-British people make when meeting a Brit is in response to the oft-used question “How are you?” or “How are you doing?”. This question is almost rhetorical in nature. The person is not remotely interested in how you actually are, but courtesy and greeting formality demand the use of such a question. The mistake commonly made is to reply with a lengthy account of your current medical status. This is neither required or indeed desired.
Relationships are another linguistical minefield with some very clear rules. If a woman asks “Do I look fat in this?” do not hesitate to consider your answer. Any hesitation will be taken as doubt by the woman. This question is a stock question which requires a stock answer for reassurance purposes only. The woman is not actually interested in whether you actually think she does look fat in it, she just wants to hear you say “Of course not, darling”. Whatever you do, do not try and give a fuller answer – for example, “not at all but I think the red dress looks better” – as this will only serve to antagonise the woman and result in the accusation being levelled at you, “You do think I’m fat, don’t you!” Take the easy option, you are not required to answer with any more detail, in fact it is actively discouraged.
If you are out with a group of people and you hear someone describe another person as “having a heart of gold” or “such a lovely, kind person”, do not be fooled – this is subtext speak for that person being, how do I put it kindly, “no oil painting”. In fact, we have a lot of expressions which thinly disguise the brutal truth – my personal favourite is “he/she is not the sharpest knife in the drawer” – sounds so much kinder than “thick as two short planks”.
There is one situation though where you can take what we say at face value. If your girlfriend/partner/wife says to you, “I’m really sorry but I’ve got a headache” – she means it. Yes, there is a subtext here, of course, and by all means offer her a paracetamol but don’t dispute it, otherwise the headache will inevitably get worse and recur more often.