April 24, 2022

Indirect Language: why your British colleagues don’t always say what they mean

Have you ever felt confused by your British colleagues?

You understand exactly what they are saying but you still seem to misunderstand each other.

My client felt the same when she first started working in the UK.

Ana’s Story

Ana is originally from Poland and came to the UK 6 years ago. Her first job was in a manufacturing company. She was working in the office and part of her job was to write reports about the production lines. Here is a story she told me about a misunderstanding that happened at work:


I had been working on a report for a few days, but I had so many responsibilities that I hadn’t finished it yet.

I  received an email from my supervisor saying, 

‘Could you finish the report by tomorrow?’

I responded, ‘No I can’t; I will finish it by Friday’ 

I thought this was a reasonable response to a question about my ability to complete the report. 

I had many things to do so I couldn’t finish it by the next day and the official deadline wasn’t until two days later. 

But much to my surprise, I received the following response from my supervisor, ‘I don’t appreciate the tone of your email. We need the report to be finished by tomorrow’.

I  was so confused! She seemed really angry and I had no idea why!”

Why the misunderstanding?

The intention of the supervisor was to tell Ana to finish the report by the next day in a polite way.

In the UK, people often phrase a request as a question to make it seem more polite.

Here “Could you…….?” is actually a polite request.

NOT a question about her ability to do the job.

Ana responded with a direct statement. Her intention was to be honest about her ability to finish the report.

But her supervisor interpreted this in a different way. She thought Ana was refusing to follow her request without saying sorry.

She thought Ana was being rude.

Language and Culture

Ana’s story demonstrates how culture influences the language people use.

Even if you understand the literal meaning of what people say, misunderstandings happen because of the implied meaning.

In the UK, what is said is not always what is meant. In some cultures this may be seen as deceptive; in the UK it is a way of being polite.

Neither communication style is better than the other, but it is important to understand the intention behind language if we want to build these relationships.

If you want to build better relationships with your British colleagues and clients, understanding why they use indirect language will help you to navigate this.

Do you feel like you can’t relate to your British colleagues? Do you feel like you’re misunderstood?

My 121 neurolanguage coaching programme, will help you to better understand British culture, so you can build better relationships and achieve your goals in the UK.

Book your free 1-hour trial session here:  www.calendly.com/sarah-theenglishcoach/121