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The Real Reason British People are So Hard to Understand

Image representing students learning about the real reason British people are so hard to understand

I’m sure you’ve heard the cliche that British people are excessively polite and easily embarrassed by uncomfortable situations. Well, it’s not just a joke – it’s true. In fact, there’s even a TV show  called Very British Problems, where different comedians from the UK talk about all the normal daily situation that make British people panic, and all the strange things that British people think and do that often make life more awkward for them.

In language terms, this often translates into two things that non-native speakers find confusing or annoying. The first is the British habit of saying “sorry” all the time, about everything, even in situations where you wouldn’t expect someone to say sorry, or when it would be crazy to think that a person could really feel guilty about their behaviour.

For example, it’s not unusual to see a British person apologise automatically when they bump into an object, like a door or a signpost. This can seem very funny, but also very strange, to people from other countries.

More confusing for non-native speakers, though, is the British habit of avoiding direct speech in order to avoid sounding demanding or rude. British people tend to feel uncomfortable asking for something in a very direct way, which means they sometimes add in a lot of unnecessary words or “hint” at what they want.

For example, a British person in a restaurant might say something like, “I’m really sorry to be a pain, but do you think it would be okay if we moved to the table in the corner? It’s just we’re feeling a bit chilly, but don’t worry if that’s a problem at all,” rather than: “Can we move over there, please? It’s a bit cold here.” Or your boss might say, “I can see what you’ve done here, but it isn’t quite what I had in mind,” rather than “I don’t like this”. This kind of language can make it harder to understand what they want.

Here are five examples of things British people say… and what they really mean.


  • “Let’s agree to disagree”


Literal meaning: we both have different opinions that aren’t going to change, so let’s not argue.

What British people mean: I think you are 100% wrong, but I’m too tired to argue.


  • “Not to worry”


Literal Meaning: Don’t worry about it, it’s not a problem.

What British People Mean: I’m really upset about this, but I don’t want to make a fuss.


  • “I’ll see you down there”


Literal meaning: I’ll meet you at the place you’re going to a little bit later

What British People Mean: I’m probably not going to come.


  • “I’ll bear it in mind”


Literal meaning: I will think about what you’ve said and I might do what you suggest.

What British People Mean: Please stop talking. I have no intention of listening to what you’re saying.


  • “I should probably make a move”


Literal meaning: It is probably time for me to go.

What British People Mean: I’m bored now. Bye.


  • “I might stop for a quick pint on the way home”


Literal meaning: I’m considering having one beer after work

What British People Mean: I want to go and get drunk and will probably be home very late.


Want to learn to read between the lines and understand what British people REALLY mean? Sign up for one of our great English courses at www.Eurocentres.com