What the British say and what they mean

If like me you have learned English at school, you probably haven’t learned the different meanings of expressions and way of sayings that Brits use on a regular basis.

I have been working with native English speakers for more than 13 years now and still notice that although the settings are mostly international, i.e. we all tend to speak an international-English, the native speakers still use their language in a very British way.


                                                                                                                           © Reddit Media




You can imagine what kind of misunderstandings happened… I found myself very often in the position to translate the meaning to non-native speakers and it is a favorite topic in my intercultural communication trainings.

If someone says “I hear what you say” and the other one thinks that the proposal is good and is accepted, you can imagine how disappointed and frustrated this person is when she finds out that it was a “no go”…

Or when you talk to your child’s teachers about an assessment and think that there is nothing to worry about because “it’s not too bad”, or “it’s fine” only to find out a few months later that the child is having serious problems…

The British indirectness is something one needs to get used to. But the most challenging aspect of all this, in my experience, is that some might use the phrases and mean them in the British way, and others not.

So my tip is always to ask: “do you mean… or ….?”. But here, again, it is sometimes more the non-verbal clues that give you the honest answer you’re looking for.

Is the person avoiding eye-contact, giggling or overtly saying “no, I don’ t mean it this way…” (really?…), then be prepared that it might not be honest… again…


I have to confess that I sometimes play with the different meeting and discussions styles to test the people in the room. I recently attended a meeting with mainly native speakers, and turned the discussion into a more “Dutch” style, i.e. more direct, straight forward way. – What happened? The native speakers were shocked, wondered what was going on, if there were any serious problems among us. – There weren’t! I, an Italian colleague and a Dutch colleague discussed this afterwards. We had observed this many times before and especially in mixed cultural settings it is tiring and seems to be difficult to find the common language when not all of the participants are aware of what is going on. It can be even detrimental for the meeting…


Here are a few more phrases that can be confusing, taken from an online article, and inspired by the book Very British Problems. I added some explanations here and there, I hope you find it useful:


1. ‘I might join you later’ — Translation: I’m not leaving the house today unless it’s on fire.

With some friends we waited for 1 hour and she didn’t show up…

2. ‘Excuse me, sorry, is anyone sitting here?’ — Translation: You have 3 seconds to move your bag before I get really annoyed.

Usually this is accompanied by a very clear move towards the seat, and the person might be putting her bag already on the seat… – I actually find this quite rude, but that’s me I guess…

3. ‘Not to worry.’ — Translation: I will never forget this!

4. Saying ‘Sorry’ as a way of introducing yourself.

The many “sorry’s” said by Brits is overwhelming. When my son started attending English preschool I was worried by the many sorry’s he would say – even in German (‘tschuldigung!…) – It has quite some impact on the self-confidence of a person to apologize so many times, even if it is not really meant as an apology… Our subconscious listens to these words and reacts accordingly.

5. ‘Bit wet out there.’ — Translation: You’re going to swim

It’s always ironic… The “bit” means the contrary…

6. Ending an email with ‘Thanks’. — Translation: I’m perilously close to losing my temper!

All short endings of mails or letters are a sign that the person is not really happy…

7. ‘Right then, I really should start to think about possibly making a move.’ — Translation: Bye!

This is a very typical one: the long goodbyes. We sometimes spend more time in the hallway than actually during the visit… no, just joking (or not).

8. ‘It’s fine.’ — Translation: It really couldn’t get any worse, but it probably will do

This is something many internationals need to get used to! Again, when teachers say that your child is doing “fine”, start asking questions!

9. ‘Perfect.’ — Translation: Well that’s ruined then!

When I said “it was all perfect”to a native speaker when asked if all was set up like I expected for a workshop lately, she started getting very nervous. “It was fine…really” – again: shouldn’t have said that! – in the end I told her that it couldn’t have been better and gave a very detailed feedback about what went well…

10: ‘Not too bad, actually.’ — Translation: I’m probably the happiest I’ve ever been.

When working with clients on communication skills, I often mention that sarcasm and irony are most difficult for people who are not native speakers to grasp, so, please, add some sentences to make clear what you really mean!

12. ‘Honestly, it doesn’t matter.’ — Translation: Nothing has ever mattered more than this.

I started using this in discussions with native speakers and it worked…

13. ‘That’s certainly one way of looking at it.’ — Translation: That’s certainly the wrong way of looking at it.

14. ‘If you say so.’ — Translation: I’m afraid that what you’re saying is the height of idiocy.

15. ‘With all due respect…’ — Translation: You have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.

This is one of my favorites… I always observe the reaction of native speakers to see if they get it that someone who is not native might intend it this way. I could tell long stories about this but won’t…

16. Saying ‘You’re welcome’ as quietly as possible to people that don’t say thank you, but using it as a form of punishment.

17. Meanings of ‘I beg your pardon’ — Translation: a) I didn’t hear you; b) I apologize; c) What you’re saying is making me absolutely livid!

These are difficult to distinguish. It always depends on the situation, the intonation and the non-verbal expression of the person.

18. ‘It could be worse.’ — Translation: It couldn’t possibly be any worse. This is intended in the most honest way when there is a sign of empathy and the intonation is soothing, so, try to analyze the situation and observe the other person. If the intonation sounds more strict and the other person is avoiding eye contact, she probably means the opposite from what she just said…

19. ‘Each to their own.’ — Translation: You’re wrong, but never mind.

This is actually similar to the German “Jedem das Seine…” and it means the same thing! It comes from the juridical “suum cuique” but changes meaning.

20. ‘Pop around anytime.’ — Translation: Please stay away from my house.

I once was so offended by someone telling me that and obviously meaning to stay away, that I responded “not to worry…” and some more…

21. ‘I’m just popping out for lunch, does anyone else want anything?’ — Translation: I’m getting my own lunch now, please don’t ask me to get you anything!

After 13 years in the Netherlands I can’t understand why someone would offer to be nice with the mere intention not to be…

22. ‘No, no, honestly it was my fault.’ — Translation: It was absolutely your fault and we both know it!

23. ‘No, yeah, that’s very interesting!’ — Translation: You are boring me to death!

If you are uncertain that the person really means it, observe the body language. Is she avoiding to look you straight in the eye, looking elsewhere, fidgeting, yawning…? Ask “what do you find particularly interesting?” to find out…

24. ‘No harm done.’ — Translation: You have ruined everything!

Here, again, it’s the intonation that makes you understand if the person is honest or not…

25. ‘Just whenever you get a minute…’ — Translation: Now!

26. ‘I’m sure it’ll be fine.’ — Translation: I fully expect the situation to deteriorate rapidly!

When I recently said this to a Brit, and I saw the fear in her eyes, I added a kind gesture and “really, you don’t have to worry, I mean it in a German way”…

27. ‘Sorry, I think you might have dropped something…’ — Translation: You have definitely dropped that specific item!


Most of these phrases need to be considered in their context and we should never assume that what we hear and think understand is what is meant by the person.
What I always advise is to observe the non verbal language of the other person, the gestures, what their eyes say and the intonation… If in doubt, ask open questions and say “please be honest with me, I would like to understand you right” to make sure there are no misunderstandings and to observe body language.




What Mai Nguyen-Phuong-Mai says in her article Breaking through the barriers of traditional interculturalism is what I teach in my intercultural communication trainings: instead of teaching or learning “how things are done in such and such culture”, we should always be aware that we are

“both products and producers of our own culture. At any given time, we (sub) consciously follow its values, but we can also choose to redirect the flow, alternate the norms, creating a new lifestyle, confronting old thinking. I specifically want my students to focus on adaptability because they are the generation of action.”



If you like this topic and are interested in knowing more about intercultural communication, on how to understand the other language and avoid misunderstandings: I offer intercultural communication trainings where you learn this and much more about the other culture and language.


  1. Pingback: How to avoid misunderstandings and 7 tips to speak International English - Ute's International Lounge

  2. Bwahahaha! I must say I have never quite thought of it this way (truly), but the “I beg your pardon!” is spot-on! It is ALL about intonation!

  3. The article is fascinating!
    I am a South Korean but, have lived in New Zealand and America for years.
    Now, I live in Germany but I feel always there are many cultural context differences between Germany and many English countries.
    In my view as an Asian, it is always interesting that many English countries do not have strong low-context culture, even though these countries are germanic. In other words, many English countries have high-context cultures or intermediate between low and low-context cultures
    When I stayed in the two countries, it seemed like they also have Nunchi culture (In Korean, you can look up Wikipedia below for what it is). However, they have different Nunchi– different kinds of Nunchi, I would say.


    So, do you know why it is?
    In my view, the occupation areas from Roma Empire play a key role in answering this kind of question. Britain and some parts of Southern Germany were occupied by the Empire. So maybe, Roman culture invaded those areas more than any other Germanastic country.
    Additionally, the French affected the cultures of both America and Britain a lot, due to many wars or helping America during the civil war. Nowadays, there are many people from Mexico or Cuba in America. So, many American cultures are mixed up with Spanish culture too.
    Fundamentally, the English language is based on the Germanic language, but now, they are evolving in many different ways reflected in the facts mentioned above.
    So, it does not seem like pure Germanic language anymore.

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