Communication – what people really mean – when understanding the words isn’t enough

A couple of years ago I did some research into some of the linguistic challenges that German customers faced when moving to the UK. It wasn’t about the English language itself, and the kind of problems that non-native speakers have, but about the gap they sometimes faced between what the words meant and what the person saying them actually wanted to say.

I also wanted to use the examples here, to show that even though something may be clear to the person making the statement, there is room for interpretation on the part of the listener. That’s why it’s always so important to communicate clearly and to reduce the chance that someone may go away with a completely incorrect interpretation of what we thought or wanted.

So, in these examples I was talking to non-native speakers, but these misunderstandings can easily happen between native speakers too. Some people naturally interpret things more literally than others, which is why it’s always better to say what you mean and mean what you say.

Criticism can be less harsh, but you need to be able to spot it

Understating things

The typical English person doesn’t jump around with excitement or fling their arms round their friends in a warm embrace. Sometimes it’s not good to take their words literally.

“That’s not bad”, can actually be interpreted as “that’s quite good”. “I’m not doing too bad”, probably just means “I’m doing ok!”

According to Marco, people in Germany are more direct than they are in the UK. As a result, it’s important to listen out for the hidden or understated messages because people might not spell them out for you. “I am a bit disappointed that” probably means that the person is very disappointed. We sometimes use words like “a bit” or “quite” to soften the blow, but the key words in the sentence are “I’m disappointed”.

I know that I have been guilty of this as a teacher in the past. “I have A few minor corrections” does often mean exactly that, but sometimes it means “I’ve read your work and now I’m going to tell you about your mistakes. There were actually more than a few minor ones but I don’t want you to feel bad”.

Sometimes people don’t mean what they say

There are no definite rules. Sometimes, “I’ll bear it in mind” does mean exactly that. The person will take your comment on board and think about it going forward. However it can also mean “That’s a completely useless contribution, but I have to acknowledge it so as not to be impolite”.

In the same way, “that’s interesting” can mean any number of things from it’s indeed really interesting to it’s strange or it’s completely irrelevant, let’s move on. The key here is to think about what else the person is saying, how quickly they want to move on, whether they look bored or eager to learn more.

Let’s get to the point

This is what Angelika had to say: “British people seem to beat around the bush a lot before they get down to business instead of getting straight to the point. It frustrates me sometimes as I just want to get on with it.”

Sometimes English people are masters of conversation when it comes to superficial subjects such as the weather. It’s a way to break the ice. Everyone can have an opinion and it’s hard to get into a controversy unless you get into a heated debate about global warming. This may go on longer than you are used to, but plunging straight into the business details may leave people feeling that you’re not interested in them, but only the task at hand.

Some people will feel happy spending a whole evening with you without telling you much about themselves. They may choose to open up once they know you better, or they may not. And whatever you do, don’t expect people to be open about their age. Most won’t!

Being polite vs being honest

Anja shared quite openly about the difficulties she faced in this area. “I found there is a different culture in how people communicate and at the start I really struggled with people being polite but actually not meaning what they said in the same way I was used to from German friends. People are a lot more polite on the surface and less straightforward, which I think can be a struggle to start with; Not just in business.”

“It’s fine” or “it doesn’t matter” shouldn’t be taken literally if someone has a face like thunder or a scowl, or if the other person keeps going on about the thing that apparently doesn’t matter!

People who don’t do what you expect them to aren’t necessarily being rude

Particularly among colleagues, the salutation in emails is often dropped. So there’s no “kind regards”, “best wishes” or “have a good weekend”. Sometimes there’s just the person’s name at the bottom. Sometimes they just write your name at the top, with no “dear”, “hi” etc. Whilst I may be tempted to do that if someone is annoying me, many people do it out of habit and there is no hidden message at all. In this way, English people can offend colleagues from other parts of the world without even realising it.

Christina said “I noticed that it is not uncommon here that people don’t greet each other while in Germany we shake hands with every colleague in the morning.”

I would think it rude if I said “good morning” to a colleague and they didn’t answer, but I think that, generally, particularly in the big cities, we are less likely to greet people than in other parts of the world. I remember going to get a coffee in a hotel in Sweden and some people whom I didn’t know said good morning to me on the way past. I returned the greeting, but it took me by surprise because it’s not what I’m used to.

In terms of people that you know, greeting them is normal, but many English people only shake hands the first time that they meet someone. They wouldn’t do it every day.

Less formality

It’s not all bad! According to Christine, the atmosphere seems much more relaxed in the UK, people joke and are not very formal.

Christine is the second person to mention joking, and it’s true – we can be a less formal, relaxed bunch of people.

Anne-Marie pointed out that in the UK people usually start off on a first name basis, whereas in Germany, people happily work alongside each other for years before offering the “Du”. This is true. When I worked in a previous role, even the Directors were spoken to using their first names and this was completely normal. It’s just a different kind of working culture. It doesn’t mean that we respect them any less or that we are closer to our colleagues – it’s just a different way of doing things.

So, what does this mean for you?

For me, as an English person, I find direct communication refreshing. You don’t waste time promising to do things that you have no intention of doing. Yes means yes and no means no. I didn’t think that we, as English people, were particularly polite, but what my German contacts tell me suggests otherwise. Maybe I’m just not typically British!

It’s true that this article focussed on intercultural differences in communication, but I think there’s also a lesson to be learned about how we communicate with people in general. Is it really clear and obvious what we mean? Do we try to dress things up so that they sound friendly, but in doing so hide some of the core meaning? Could what we write or say be confusing to someone that doesn’t know us? If so, how can we fix it?

If you have any thoughts on this, let me know in the comments.

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