Problems can ensue when someone from England is attempting to communicate with a non-native-English speaker, like an American, for example.
I've been living in America for 27 years now. I think I'm starting to get the hang of it, but it wasn't always easy.
A lot of the problems stem from the fact that the same handful of words can mean quite different things depending on who is uttering them and who is listening to them. As the Irish writer George Bernard Shaw once said: "England and America are two countries divided by a common language." (Some people credit this saying to Oscar Wilde, while others attribute it to Winston Churchill, but whoever did say it certainly hit the proverbial nail on the head.)
This is not simply an English-American issue, of course; we can easily make ourselves misunderstood anywhere in the world. A big problem is that understatement is a staple of traditional English culture. We regard it as being bad form to blow one's own trumpet (unless one is in a marching band, of course) and a tad gauche to get too excited about anything, from little things like winning a game of ping-pong, all the way up to major events and disasters.
In one scene from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, for example, an army officer is asked how he feels just after losing one of his legs. He looks down at his bloody stump and responds: "Stings a bit." Although this may sound strange to outsiders, this is the sort of response a true Englishman would hope to emulate if faced with a similar dire circumstance.
Not surprisingly, this can lead to confusion, because when someone from England is attempting to communicate with a baffled and bewildered non-native-English speaker -- like your typical American, for example -- the result can be akin to playing a complicated game where each side is following a different set of rules.
Take the seemingly innocuous phrase, "Not bad," for example. If someone said this to me in England, I’d take it to mean "That's quite good" or "Well done.". If I served a meal to some English guests, and one of them said "Not bad," I would understand this to mean "I love it and I'll be asking you for the recipe later."
This is where you have to be so careful. If I were to go to an American friend's house for supper and I carelessly said "Not bad," meaning "That's very good,", they would probably take it to mean "That's rather poor," which could easily put the damper on the evening. (As an aside, if an Englishman feels moved to amplify this statement along the lines of: "Not bad... not bad at all," then this is the equivalent of him jumping up and down in giddy excitement and high-fiving you.)
Happily, in order to prevent such confusion in the future, one of my chums in England just sent me a very useful list of instances comparing what the English say, what they actually mean, and what others understand them to mean.
(Source: Max Maxfield)
The reason I left the last row blank is that I'm sure there are many more such examples, and I was hoping you might help me out if you've run across any of them.
— Max Maxfield, Editor of All Things Fun & Interesting