Magazine topic: 
Life around the world

Do we say what we think?

by : 
KatieJ

'It’s raining cats and dogs!' Although this phrase is not very common in England any more, it clearly shows how we don’t always say what we mean.  One thing that is often frustrating for language learners is that they understand every word in a sentence and yet the meaning remains unclear - like this sentence that actually means 'it’s raining very heavily!' However, it’s not just idioms that cause difficulties for people learning English.

The British are often considered to be polite and courteous but this can be very confusing for non-native speakers. We often don’t say what we are thinking - in fact we often say the opposite! Here’s an example that will hopefully explain what I mean:

'You should come round for tea!'

Is this a genuine invitation or is the person just being polite? Stereotypically, British people are less open than people from other cultures, so we aren’t as quick to invite people into our homes. This phrase is one of those that we say but often don’t really mean, so when no further details are given, you can probably assume it was made in the name of politeness! But how does this compare to other countries?

When I lived in India, lots of people would invite me into their homes but I always assumed that they were just being polite. Of course, I was wrong. The invitations were almost always genuine, and people expected me to visit them. I was always surprised by how welcoming people were. In fact, I think I spent more time at other people’s houses than my own!

This summer, whilst working in Austria, one of my flatmates made me think about invitations again. She invited me to join her and her boyfriend for a meal out. Although touched by the invitation, I immediately assumed that she was just being polite so I told her that I didn’t want to intrude. She replied with, 'If I didn’t want you to come, I wouldn’t have invited you in the first place!'

This highlighted to me that politeness is culturally defined. In England, we often think it’s polite to offer or suggest something even if we don’t actually want to do it, whereas in other cultures people are more direct. Perhaps if English people just say what they were thinking, things would be a lot easier – especially for non-native speakers!

Discussion

Do you always say what you're thinking? Are there any unwritten rules in your language as to what is considered to be polite?