Apologies and Understatements

People riding escalators in the London Underground (subway) system.
A London Underground sign.

Just like the reputation says, British people are usually quite polite. They typically speak courteously to people they don’t know, and if Brits bump into someone on the street or in a crowded subway, they are likely to say “sorry” even if the involuntary physical contact wasn’t their fault. This mannerly disposition, which has Britons sound rather friendly, has to do with their nature of wanting to avoid direct confrontation.

The British nature of wanting to avoid direct confrontation, at times, could lead to rather interesting scenes playing out if two apologetic Brits bump into one another. As they then try to outdo each other in admitting guilt, one person probably instantly says “Sorry”, prompting the other person to equally quickly respond something to the effect of “No, I am sorry”. The second comment may, in turn, prompt the first person to emphatically say “Really, it was my fault”, and the peculiar ping-pong game of apologizing goes on from there.


Besides profuse apologies and the aforementioned courteous speaking, which touches the core of British-style communication, Britons are also good at avoiding confrontations and embarrassing situations by the use of understatements. A Brit might say “That’s quite an interesting story.” and by doing so in a particular tone of voice smooth over what is really being communicated, which is “I believe your story is a total lie.” Another example of a British-style understatement, used to express major alarm, is to say that you are “a bit concerned”.