What People Say and What They Actually Mean


In the world of PR and as practitioners in the art of persuasion, it is a source of constant surprise and confoundment to me about how few people actually say what they mean, and mean what they say.  The classic that has crept into Australian parlance in the last 5 years or so is “Yeah… no”.  The actual translation of this might be: “Yes, I understand your meaning and I empathise with your question, but in reality, that’s not what we were after.”  I do ponder about how people who are learning English as a second language cope with the subtleties and nuances of our language as it is practically applied.

I think what happens sometimes it that politeness gets in the way of clarity.  The absolute worst offenders in this game of manners are the British.  They are the undisputed championsof the understatement.  You could imagine asking the Queen how her recent visit to Australia went.  “Did many people come out to see you, Your Majesty?”, “Oh yes, I did see a few here and there,” she might reply in a self-deprecating way.  Translation: “Didn’t you see, there were thousands and thousands!  I was well chuffed.”

Contrast this with our American friends who commit the ‘hooray for everything’ crime of overstating the case and are the worst offenders in the use of corporate goobledigook, particularly when it comes to business and sales.  “Buy now at this once in a lifetime, never to be repeated offer that will totally change life on this planet as we know it.”  Well, perhaps but not quite.

And so it is that there is a new list of English translations of expressions used by British people that explain, what people say, and then contrast this with first what they actually mean, and then finally, what the listener might have misunderstood them to have meant in the first place.

For example:

British person says: “I only have a few minor comments”
What they actually mean: “Please re-write completely”
What the non-British person understands: “He/She has found a few typos.”

It would be fascinating to develop a similar matrix for what Australians say and what others understand.  For example:

Non Australian asks: “Did you enjoy the Christmas party this year?”
What an Australian says: “Not half!”
What an Australian means: “It was great, thanks for asking”
What the non-Australian understands: “Hmmm… not sure…?”

This exercise is a pertinent reminder for all of us to go boldly into the bravery-filled world of clear speech.  To read the article in full, complete with hilarious misunderstandings of Brit-speak click here

Please feel free to share with us your communication and mis-communication corkers.

Yours in PR

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