YouGov survey: British sarcasm ‘lost on Americans’

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YouGov survey: British sarcasm 'lost on Americans'

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption "With the greatest respect…"

Britons like to think they have a "special relationship" with the US, based on a common language and cultural, historical and political ties.

But, according to one of the UK's most respected polling companies, there's one chasm the English language can't always bridge – the British love of passive-aggressive statements.

In the words of YouGov, "half of Americans wouldn't be able to tell that a Briton is calling them an idiot".

YouGov showed a number of common British phrases, including "with the greatest respect", "I'll bear it in mind" and "you must come for dinner", to Britons and Americans.

"While not all the phrases show a difference in transatlantic understanding, there are some statements where many Yanks are in danger of missing the serious passive aggression we Brits employ," YouGov said.

The starkest difference was in the phrase "with the greatest respect" – which most Britons took to mean "I think you are an idiot", but nearly half of Americans interpreted as "I am listening to you".

Skip Twitter post by @YouGov

Half of Americans wouldn’t be able to tell that a Briton is calling them an idiot, finds our new study on British subtext
What does "with the greatest respect" mean?
"I think you are an idiot": ?? 68% / ?? 40%
"I am listening to you": ?? 24% / ?? 49%https://t.co/9EZXEJjUtM pic.twitter.com/Us8OsMPgc3

— YouGov (@YouGov) January 11, 2019

Report

End of Twitter post by @YouGov

YouGov based its survey on a popular meme of British phrases and their subtext.

It's not clear who came up with the table, although it's done the rounds online for several years – and was first seen by the BBC in 2011 in a blog by Oxfam.

What the British sayWhat the British meanWhat others understand
I hear what you sayI disagree and do not want to discuss it furtherHe accepts my point of view
With the greatest respect…I think you are an idiotHe is listening to me
That's not badThat's goodThat's poor
That is a very brave proposalYou are insaneHe thinks I have courage
Quite goodA bit disappointingQuite good
I would suggest…Do it or be prepared to justify yourselfThink about the idea, but do what you like
Oh, incidentally/by the wayThe primary purpose of our discussion is…That is not very important
I was a bit disappointed thatI am annoyed thatIt doesn't really matter
Very interestingThat is clearly nonsenseThey are impressed
I'll bear it in mindI've forgotten it alreadyThey will probably do it
I'm sure it's my faultIt's your faultWhy do they think it was their fault?
You must come for dinnerIt's not an invitation, I'm just being politeI will get an invitation soon
I almost agreeI don't agree at allHe's not far from agreement
I only have a few minor commentsPlease re-write completelyHe has found a few typos
Could we consider some other options?I don't like your ideaThey have not yet decided

YouGov decided to show the same phrases, and each of the meanings, to about 1,700 Brits and 1,900 Americans, and asked them which matched their own interpretation the most closely.

The survey showed that some – though not all – of the stereotypes in the table were statistically correct.

There was plenty of common ground – for example, a majority of both British and US adults consider "I was a bit disappointed that" a polite way of saying "I am annoyed that" – rather than "it doesn't really matter".

But those in the UK are much more likely to consider "I'll bear it in mind" and "I hear what you say" to be attempts to brush you off.

And a higher proportion of Britons than Americans (44% to 31%) think "that is a very brave proposal" actually means "you are insane".

Image caption The British have a long history of sarcasm

Plenty of Americans working in the UK have complained about British passive-aggressiveness, or their annoying tendency to beat around the bush.

  • Idiosyncrasies of the Brits at work
  • Why do Brits and Americans swear so differently?
  • What do Brits think about Americans?
  • Why you may find US colleagues 'more polite' than Brits

But UK expats have also complained about American insults directed at Brits.

One writer for BBC America came up with the following translations for American English:

Americans sayThis means
I love it! You just don't CARE, do you?What the hell did you just do? I'm dying of embarrassment here
Oh, you can get away with it, you're BritishAn American wouldn't be seen dead wearing what you're wearing or doing what you just did
Bless her heart!This phrase is a bit of a put down, effectively allowing the speaker to slag off someone without recrimination.

At the end of the day, while the British may like to think they have a more sophisticated sense of sarcasm, they might have more in common with their American cousins than they think.

We'll bear that in mind.

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