Being expat

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 setting is mostly international, i.e. we tend to speak an international-English, the native speakers still use their language in a very British way.


Bildschirmfoto 2018-03-03 um 11.19.16

I found myself very often in the position to translate the meaning to non-native speakers. You can imagine what kind of misunderstandings happened.
If someone said “I hear what you say” and the other one thinks that the proposal was good and is accepted, you can imagine how disappointed and frustrated this person was when she found out that it was a “no go”…

Or when you talk to your child’s teacher about an assessment and thinks that they don’t have anything to worry about because “it’s not to bad”, 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!


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 like:

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.

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 ask open questions 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 would like to know more about my intercultural communication trainings, contact me at

Categories: Being expat

25 replies »

  1. Ha ha as a native Englishman I loved this. I would add that to make things even more complexity many of these phrases don’t mean what you’ve said here…sometimes!

    For instance, sometimes ‘you must come round for dinner’ really does mean that but perhaps not in the very near future like next week! The context and the person often dictates how to read this phrase.

    But all these things are very, very British indeed. Poor old you lot that have to put up with it! ?

  2. Very funny ( not meant sarcastically!)? im American but from the Midwest so i have a very similar prediliction toward not saying what I mean. But i wanted to point out that we English speakers experience a similar state of confusion when faced with the directness and brutal honesty more commonplace in places like Germany. The first few times I heard “Pass auf!” (Pay attention to what im about to say) i thought the speakers were angry at me! At the very least i thought i was in trouble or had made a grievous error.

    And its hard to suppress the constant impulse to ask how someone is, upon greeting them, even though you want no real information in return. I was also told more than once that i smile too much. ?

    • Thank you very much for your comment 😉 You’re so right: there are so many “Englishnesses” and as for the languages that are brutally honest, or at least can sound like it, like German (or Dutch, Danish?) one needs to adjust to them.
      The “Pass auf!” is very short and with the right intonation very intimidating… For some, hearing Greek or Italian people talk sounds like they would argue, which is usually not the case. It’s just the intonation that sounds “harsh(er)”…
      As for the impulse you mention, I completely understand. I tend to say “please” and “thank you” more often than I should when talking Dutch or German 😉 … not to mention my smiling. I love to smile and I even add many smilies in my writing, of course the one on social media 😉 (and I did it again…)

      • How about the choice of when to speak your native toungue vs when to tough it out in the one of the land youre in? When i travelled, i felt like many other Americans spoke English too much and thereby limited their experiences while abroad. I think peoplerespect you more when you attempt to speak the native language, even if you butcher it!

      • Oh this is a great topic I’ll surely will write about! I’m a very convinced language learner: “when in Rome, talk like Romans… ” But I know that some internationals or expats, when they stay in a country only for a short time – eg. a year or two – and the local language is very different from the other languages they speak, they might not really learn it, but I always advise to learn at least the basics…

  3. I live in England, and has taken me four years to realize this. As funny as the post seems, I don’t think that Britons speaking like this is what being subtle means. It is easy to upset people and I find it exhausting to have to walk on eggshells around friends. I do like saying thank you and please and politeness but there are ways of being polite and saying what you mean.

  4. Our former rector was from London, and so many of these phrases sound as if they just popped out of her mouth! Fortunately, my dad’s side of the family is also from the Empire, so I understood what she meant, rather than taking what she said as “gospel”.

    • Then you translated it automatically, as “what you hear is not how it’s meant”. For foreigners this is difficult to learn as it is usually not taught in the English courses…

  5. HI! With spending over 6 years in China, our family learnt to be quite clear-cut in our communication. This has created some problems with our return to Australia. Even after being back in Aus for 7 years, we are still thought to be too black and white, or too direct. I definitely think it comes from needing to be clear with all the different nationalities we were interacting with 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *