Are the British too polite for their own good?

The British are often criticised and ridiculed for their politeness by other nations.  Our turn of phrase is praised by some and deemed quaint, but others find it unnecessary, confusing and often interpret our indirectness as deceitful and insincere.

Translation servicesNative speakers of the English language are programmed from birth to insert ‘sorry’ or ‘excuse me’ before they interrupt somebody to ask a question.  And laughably when we request something we have to prefix it with a question such as ‘would you mind passing the salt?’  Our inability to say exactly what we mean for fear of being impolite often leaves other cultures baffled and reading something quite different into our requests and responses.

It’s not what we say, it’s how we say it
For instance, it’s acceptable for us to say ‘we must do lunch’ as a polite way of saying ‘it’s been great to bump into you, but we both know that neither of us has any intention of getting together in the foreseeable future – have a nice life’.  To our foreign counterparts we are effectively agreeing to meet again over lunch and it’s confusing when the invitation never materialises.

Another example is our standard response of ‘very interesting’ to something that we don’t agree with, want to commit to or give an opinion on.  It’s generally understood – possibly by the tone – by the other party that it’s been deemed anything but ‘very interesting’ and probably dismissed.  But to our foreign counterparts we are saying we’re impressed and it’s open for consideration.

Say what you mean and mean what you say
Yes the British are very good at giving what sounds like a positive response all in the name of politeness, when they are actually giving a negative response…no wonder we are considered deceitful and insincere by others.  But our intentions are honourable, really, because it’s a given in our culture that we all know ‘the code’.

It’s the same with any culture; you’ve just got to know ‘the code’.  In many other languages, German, Russian and Italian for instance, requests are generally more direct i.e. ‘pass the salt’ and are not interpreted as rude.  There’s no pussy-footing around the issue for 10 minutes like us Brits and little room for misinterpretation.  Of course to us this can seem abrupt, brusque and even discourteous when delivered in English.

The cultural influence
Therefore it’s important with translation to take into account culture as well as words when translating to and from languages.  A document translated word by word from another language into English would stand out like a sore thumb and probably appear amateurish without the polite nuances we are accustomed too.  Reading it would induce a face similar to the response of fingernails being dragged down a blackboard.

Equally so, a document translated word for word from English into another language would eventually end up half the size once the waffle and politeness has been extracted.  It would also get to the point sooner.

That’s why at Enigma Translation we use translators who are fluent speakers of the source language and native speakers of the target language and take into account both cultures.  This ensures that the translation is true to both languages and is acceptable and familiar to the target audience.

To find out more about our services, get in touch on +44 (01604) 750 799, email us or visit our website or Facebook page.