14 Mar 2023

The art of understatement

Hugh Grant’s low-key interview on the red carpet at this year’s Oscars ceremony once again highlights a quintessentially British characteristic, which stands out all the more when offset against the upbeat, enthusiastic and endlessly positive hype that surrounds the awards.

The British are increasingly exposed to other cultural influences, through all forms of media, and are gradually becoming more demonstrative and effusive. But only up to a point. Understatement is still a cultural norm in Britain and is seen as an attractive characteristic, synonymous with good manners. It has emerged from centuries of exacting training in drawing room etiquette. British gentlemen were encouraged to be modest about their achievements and were taught that boastfulness and arrogance were deeply unattractive traits. Instead, they were taught to deflect the conversation from themselves, and to show an unwavering interest in other people. Ladies were also taught that the most attractive characteristic they could possess was a becoming modesty – assertiveness, frivolity, loquaciousness were all deplored.

Understatement, which resolutely refuses to succumb to drama, excitement, or high emotion, goes hand in hand with another very British characteristic, the stiff upper lip, an imperturbable refusal to react histrionically to tragedy and disaster.

The most common manifestation of understatement is a determination to downplay achievements or feelings in a very self-deprecating way. This is often accompanied by a stubborn refusal to be swept along by hyperbole or overwrought emotions. Often this leads – as in the Oscar example – to a strange dance of misunderstanding. Faced with a resolutely deprecating master of understatement, a desperate interlocutor may respond with increasingly frantic assertions of approbation and affirmation. These in turn are met with yet more dogged downplaying. Onlookers may well conclude that the master of understatement is being rude, but this is not the case. The truth is that self-deprecation is a deeply ingrained part of his/her character which simply cannot be erased or concealed.

Sometimes British understatement is undeniably humorous: a famous example is the Monty Python sketch where the Grim Reaper turns up at a suburban dinner party and insists that all the guests accompany him. “Well”, one of the party guests remarks, “that’s cast rather a gloom over the evening hasn’t it?”

But understatement isn’t always deployed to raise a laugh; it permeates British speech. Conversation is littered with provisional qualifications, such as ‘quite’, ‘rather’, ‘a bit’, ‘I wonder’, ‘would you mind’, which are used all the time to downplay what are seen as over-dramatic or over-definitive statements. ‘Not bad’ is high praise, and ‘not bad at all’ is positively euphoric. You can be sure that if someone is ‘rather unpleasant’ they are verging on psychopathic. Commenting that someone is ‘quite talented’ is an acknowledgment of near genius. Extreme tentativeness characterizes direct requests: ‘I wonder, would you mind moving? I think that’s my seat’ means ‘Get out of my seat!’

Nowhere is this more apparent than in talk about the weather: ‘a bit nippy’ is considered an appropriate description of sub-zero temperatures, ‘rather damp’ describes a monsoonal downpour, ‘quite a stiff breeze’ denotes a gale-force wind.

Understatement inevitably leads to misunderstandings. Saying a piece of work is ‘not bad at all’, when you mean that it’s really very good, won’t always convey the requisite level of enthusiasm and affirmation. Similarly, telling a plumber that you’ve ‘got a bit of an issue with the pipes’ when you’re confronted with a rising flood and imminent ceiling collapse may not express sufficient urgency.

Above all, when you’re confronted by this British trait, don’t make the mistake of confusing understatement with under-reaction – remember to read between the lines and you’ll find the missing drama and emotion.


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