7 Aug 2021

Stiff Upper Lip

The British Empire was built on deadpan humour, the clenched jaw, the occasional polite smile. Adversity was something to be confronted with stoicism and sang-froid – there are numerous apocryphal tales of the phlegmatic reaction of Britons to disaster.

The imperturbable refusal to react histrionically to tragedy and disaster came into its own at times of national crisis – the terrible losses of the Great War, the devastation of the Blitz. But the sun has set on the British Empire, and it would seem that in doing so it has melted the famously stereotypical 'stiff upper lip'.

Nowadays, it is thought to be psychologically more healthy to admit to vulnerability and freely acknowledge emotion. As we watch Team GB’s achievements at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, we have witnessed bucketloads of raw emotion, from tears of frustration and despair, to ecstatic joy, frenzied excitement and triumphal celebrations. Athletes have spoken freely about their personal traumas and difficulties and the emotional impact of competing in the world arena.

But would it be a mistake to assume the pendulum has swung completely in the opposite direction? The stiff upper lip is deeply ingrained in the British psyche, and despite the media’s endless focus on sharing feelings and emotions, the underlying sang-froid of the British still runs deep. This national characteristic is a great asset when things go wrong: when athletes see so-nearly-attained medals slipping from their grasp, when trains are postponed or cancelled, when the British summer once again falls short, and the sun disappears behind a blanket of relentless grey cloud.

And when the cards are really down (pandemic, natural disaster, terrorist attack), the British are still capable of putting their newly-discovered feelings to one side and demonstrating an implacable tendency to keep calm and carry on.

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