Magazine topic: 
Life around the world

Do we say what we think?

by : 
KatieJ

'It’s raining cats and dogs!' Although this phrase is not very common in England any more, it clearly shows how we don’t always say what we mean.  One thing that is often frustrating for language learners is that they understand every word in a sentence and yet the meaning remains unclear - like this sentence that actually means 'it’s raining very heavily!' However, it’s not just idioms that cause difficulties for people learning English.

The British are often considered to be polite and courteous but this can be very confusing for non-native speakers. We often don’t say what we are thinking - in fact we often say the opposite! Here’s an example that will hopefully explain what I mean:

'You should come round for tea!'

Is this a genuine invitation or is the person just being polite? Stereotypically, British people are less open than people from other cultures, so we aren’t as quick to invite people into our homes. This phrase is one of those that we say but often don’t really mean, so when no further details are given, you can probably assume it was made in the name of politeness! But how does this compare to other countries?

When I lived in India, lots of people would invite me into their homes but I always assumed that they were just being polite. Of course, I was wrong. The invitations were almost always genuine, and people expected me to visit them. I was always surprised by how welcoming people were. In fact, I think I spent more time at other people’s houses than my own!

This summer, whilst working in Austria, one of my flatmates made me think about invitations again. She invited me to join her and her boyfriend for a meal out. Although touched by the invitation, I immediately assumed that she was just being polite so I told her that I didn’t want to intrude. She replied with, 'If I didn’t want you to come, I wouldn’t have invited you in the first place!'

This highlighted to me that politeness is culturally defined. In England, we often think it’s polite to offer or suggest something even if we don’t actually want to do it, whereas in other cultures people are more direct. Perhaps if English people just say what they were thinking, things would be a lot easier – especially for non-native speakers!

Discussion

Do you always say what you're thinking? Are there any unwritten rules in your language as to what is considered to be polite? 

Comments

Manaly's picture
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Manaly 21 August, 2016 - 16:52

This article remind me with mom she always thinks that people dont mean what they are saying they are just being polite! On the other hand, i am the opposite. If any one invited me i will come because i assume that he wants me to come. For me, if i dont have anything to say i will never invite people just to be polite, this will hurt them if they know.

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bojana13's picture
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bojana13 5 December, 2015 - 19:48

I don t usually tell what I think,becuse I don t want anyone to be hurt,but I think it s much better to tell people what you think about them in face,not behind their back.Some people may get mad and some can ignore you after that.In life you just need to be honest and tell people the truth even if it hurts.

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iva10's picture
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iva10 1 December, 2015 - 19:08

No i don`t always say what i really think,but i don`t do that on purpose i do that so i wouldn`t hurt anyone ,but i realised that isn`t a better solution because i will hurt them by not telling them the truth.Yes when older people talk we should listen and if i want something to say while they are talking they might think of that like we disrespect them.

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patchyplum's picture
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patchyplum 25 November, 2015 - 04:33

obviously..in my language they is a saying that if we say what we think we have already left this world..but personally i think that telling what u have to say to a person's face is better than talking behid the backkwell,atleast they wil know who we are,but on the other hand they say if theres nothing nice to say keep quiet..i have doubts how this works bt using proper language for the proper person is important coz we are dealing with human,not animals

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Lavender's picture
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Lavender 24 November, 2015 - 16:33

I think it's a good thing people sometimes don't say what they really think. The truth can hurt. For all we know there are so many people around us, which means there are various perspectives, interests, points of view, it's impossible we all get along well. If you don't like my dress, just being polite by keeping silence and turning your attetion to something else. I knoe people are free saying what they think but politeness is important too. Just don't tell lies and we keep good vibes.

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Ken's picture
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Ken 26 November, 2015 - 14:03

That's a good point, Lavender.
Indeed the truth can hurt, but I sometimes do want to get some feedback from others (only if the person is whom I trust and is close to me like a BF!) to check if I'm on the track. I don't want to show a shameful behavior in front of people like 'The Emperor's New Clothes'!
So in my opinion, whether to tell the truth or keeping quiet totally depends on the closeness.
It's a bit tricky to tell my judgement and take a responsibility for strangers...
ʕ→ᴥ←ʔ

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Lavender's picture
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Lavender 30 November, 2015 - 16:20

Hello Ken. Yes I agree I need feedback from people too, but only for conductive ones, I mean when those people want me to be better. The truth could be bitter but I have to be down to earth, I have to listen to it. And for those who like judging, please don't say what you think, keep it in your head.
Btw, where are you from Ken?

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Ken's picture
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Ken 1 December, 2015 - 14:30

Thanks for the comment, Lavender, absolutely right!
BTW, how do you know the people who like judging? Do you have any clues?
My family are all down to earth actually. It's really bitter and sometimes annoying, but on second though, eventually I laugh about myself because what they point out are on the mark! I've brought up in such a harsh family…. How about you, Lavender? You seem to have brought up taking in the sun!
BYW, I live in Malaysia now but I'm Japanese.
ヽ|・ω・|ゞ

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Ken's picture
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Ken 24 November, 2015 - 12:11

That seems to be an interesting topic.
I often see people telling white lies formally in a feigned voice (particularly on the phone)! But I think it's one of the strategies to avoid a clash. I've learned that there is an unwritten rule in Japan as well when inviting someone.
The formality is like this:
Speaker: " Would you like to have dinner with us ?"
Receiver: 'Oh, I'd love to,... but I'm afraid I need to….(make some excuse)
If it's the genuine invitation, the speaker will repeat the invitation a few times. And after haggling over, when the receiver convinced the invitation was genuine, then finally 'Thank you, if you insist!'
…Of course, it takes a little while to reach the decision, but they think it necessary for a politeness.
Or if the invitation is a politeness, the speaker would not repeat (insist) the invitation. Instead, s/he may tell you 'Oh, that's a shame…' And they will have a tacit understanding.
The interesting point is that Japanese people tend to show 'You…' at first before saying 'I'd like to or I think….', because it's polite ('After you' culture, I would say, just like 'lady first')!
Hmm… very unique, or rather, cool?!

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gianggiang's picture
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gianggiang 23 November, 2015 - 13:33

The English are so polite, although I am not good at English, I think I am able to realize the difference between a genuine invitation and the politeness.
In my country, the saying " Would you like to have dinner with us ?" and " Would you like to drink some tea?" are very common and normal. You shouldn't think that they are polite invitations, if you reply " Yes, I'd love to", you are very welcome. I always say what I am thinking as long as I don't make everyone unhappy. In my language, you should say what you are thinking as long as you don't break our rules ( Don't worry, our rules are very simple ).
The English don't often say what they are thinking because of politeness, but Vietnamese people don't often say what they are thinking because of mock and politeness. If you require me to say a polite saying like the English, of course I can. If you ask me talk a saying which carries deep meaning, I am ready because it's Vietnamese people's advantage. However, I don't like this :D
Our world is very lucky because English is the official language. It's much more easier than my language :D The Vietnamese are very insightful ( it's a truth) and Vietnamese is a language which often make you feel not easy to understand, but don't worry, we are very friendly and in most case, we say clearly.

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sona 23 November, 2015 - 17:40

Hi Gianggiang,
I think Albanians are very similar with English at this point. We are very polite and we are known for our hospitality . For example we say "How are you?" like we are greeting somebody and we don't wait for his answer. In addition,we normally lie to be polite(white lies). We say that we are Ok even we have had a bad time or we say that we were looking forward to meeting somebody,even it is not true. These are unwritten rules that all Albanians have.

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