Understatement and Overstatement

To Californians, England is a culture of understatement. To the English, California is a culture of overstatement. But from a more global perspective, both cultures are rather on the understated side of things.

Anna Wierzbicka’s English: Meaning and Culture quotes Syrian author Abraham Rihbany’s The Syrian Christ, published in 1920, on the differences between Anglo-American and Middle Eastern ways of speaking. Arab speech codes favor rhetorical exaggeration, Anglo-American speech codes favor accuracy or toning stuff down. After spending time in America, Rihbany found himself attuned to American cultural norms, saying things like “in my opinion” and “as it seems to me.” My favorite among the Rihbany quotes that Wierzicka provides —

“It is unpleasant to a Anglo-Saxon to note how many things an Oriental says, but does not mean. And it is distressing to an Oriental to note how many things the Anglo-Saxon means, but does not say.”

I used to have a therapist who was Palestinian: he expressed frustration that, when asked about my feelings, I would respond by elucidating what feelings somebody in my situation might reasonably be expected to have. In this respect I suppose I was being like an Englishman and he was being like an Arab. I can see why therapists hate me though…

This is from Watching the English by Kate Fox —

“Even those foreigners who appreciate the English understatement, and find it amusing, still experience considerable difficulties when it comes to using it themselves. My father tells me about some desperately anglophile Italian friends of his, who were determined to be as English as possible — they spoke perfect English, wore English clothes, even developed a taste for English food. But they complained that they couldn’t quite ‘do’ the English understatement, and pressed him for instructions. On one occasion, one of them was describing, heatedly and at some length, a ghastly meal he had had at a local restaurant — the food was inedible, the place was disgustingly filthy, the service rude beyond belief, etc., etc. ‘Oh,’ said my father, at the end of the tirade, ‘So, you wouldn’t recommend it, then?’ ‘YOU SEE?’ cried his Italian friend. ‘That’s it! How do you do that? How do you know to do that? How do you know when to do it?’ ‘I don’t know,’ said my father apologetically. ‘I can’t explain. We just do it. It just comes naturally.’”

So there you have it. Understatement: not such a big deal really…

Posted in Everything Unfinished and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • Middletown

    Understatement is like the awesomest fucking thing ever.

  • The other Olga

    somehow this post led me to a fascinating essay on "The English People" by George Orwell