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Italy vs. Britain - Why can’t Brits say what they mean?

Febbraio 2017
Buona educazione, rispetto dell’etichetta, file ordinate, please, thank you... ma non è tutto oro ciò che luccica. A volte le tanto decantate buone maniere degli inglesi nascondono meccanismi mentali assai contorti e... significano tutt’altro!

di Rachel Roberts

Rachel Roberts
Rachel Roberts

British people are famous for being polite. Possibly foreign visitors to Britain have been favourably impressed by our behaviour, or maybe we’re just famous for our many laws of etiquette – like when we insist on forming queues. However, it’s also true that some forms of British politeness can cause a great deal of confusion and on an international level this can be detrimental to British people themselves.


When going to the UK, you should remember to always say “please” and “thank you.” The frequency with which British people use these words can seem unreal. Even during a simple transaction, such as buying a bar of chocolate, most Brits will say “please” at least once and “thank you” three times or more.


Although British people are extremely class-conscious, in many ways the culture can be very egalitarian. People who serve in shops, bars and restaurants, may be of a lower social status compared to some of their customers, but they never behave in a servile manner. In other words, if you are a wealthy aristocrat and you walk into a newsagent’s to buy a copy of The Times, you must always say “please” and “thank you” to the person behind the counter, even if their accent suggests working-class status.


Another word we use a lot is “sorry.” It’s on the tip of every British tongue, but beware, we don’t just use it to apologize. Of course you should immediately say “sorry” if you bump into someone or accidently stand on their foot. In fact you should also say sorry if someone bumps into you or stands on your foot! However, “sorry” can also mean “excuse me”– for example if you’re trying to attract someone’s attention or move past them in a narrow space. It also works if you want to interrupt someone in a conversation (“Sorry, but could I just say....”), or to disagree with them (“I’m sorry, but I don’t agree...”). My mother uses the word very successfully as a weapon when someone blocks the aisle in a supermarket. In this case “Sorry,” pronounced forcefully, actually means “Get out of the way, can’t you see I’m a little old lady with a heavy shopping trolley?”


Sometimes, not saying what we mean can really cause confusion, especially when we are reluctant to criticize. Italian students at university in the UK may want some constructive criticism if they get a low mark for an assignment. They will certainly want some clear indication as to what they have done wrong. A British tutor, on the other hand, will spend a lot of time discussing “what was good about this piece of work” and will then invite the student to suggest how they could improve next time.


Brits will even say “no” when they actually mean “yes.” If you invite a British person to your home and offer them a cup of tea and a biscuit, they may say “No, thanks” out of politeness, meaning they don’t want to put you to any trouble and waste your valuable time. In reality they’re probably dying for a cup of tea, so you should try insisting a couple of times.
If you think all of this is far too complicated, remember that British people often get into difficulties with their own rules of politeness, particularly when they make the mistake of assuming that – as most foreign people these days speak English – they also share the same confusing etiquette. Here’s an example.


In 2015 ex-Prime Minister David Cameron tried to persuade German chancellor Angela Merkel to let the UK have a special deal in Europe. He wanted to opt out of the free movement of people, while staying in the single market. Merkel said “No.” She said it again before the Brexit Referendum vote. When the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, went to Brussels in October 2016 with a similar request, again Chancellor Merkel’s answer was “No.” Angela Merkel thinks she has been very clear, but in the UK politicians and journalists are still trying to work out what she could possibly mean!

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Aisle. Corridoio. Attenzione alla pronuncia di questa parola: la s è muta e si pronuncia ail. È importante saperlo anche all’aeroporto, quando si fa il check-in, in caso si voglia un posto vicino al corridoio!


Parla come mangi

Keep it simple, say what you mean