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Conversation and Gestures

Conversation and Gestures

In conversation the English are at their most obtuse. For they hardly ever say what they mean, and very often say the exact opposite.

Thus when you are telling a story to an Englishman or woman which elicits the response: "How interesting!", it should not be taken at face value. Faint praise damns as surely as criticism.

When an English man or woman enquires about the health of another, it will invariably elicit the response: "Mustn't grumble!" This is English hypocrisy writ large. For grumbling is a national pastime. They love to find fault, and no aspect of their lives escapes their venom. Their health, the Government, bureaucracy, the price of food, young people, old people - all are grist to their mill. Nodding sagely and united in discontent, they lay into anything and everything. And finally, refreshed by a good grumbling session, they unite in the moaners' amen - "Typical!"

Conversational Triggers

Conversation does not come easily to the English. For this reason they have developed a bewildering battery of metaphors with which even the least educated English man or woman is familiar and comfortable. These include euphemisms for the avoidance of verbal confrontation with "tricky" subjects. Thus the English do not die, they "pass over", "pass on", "shuffle off" or merely "go". When they relieve themselves they "spend a penny", "wash their hands" or "answer the call".

They are devoted to a huge range of hackneyed expressions which they drag out frequently to keep the conversational ball in play or to cover their escape. Because they are slightly ashamed of the triteness of these, they refer to them dismissively in French as "cliches". Moving from one to another, the skilful user will defy categorisation and avoid taking a stance on any subject under discussion. Finally he or she will tell you that "time and tide wait for no man" before leaving the field.

Foreigners can never quite get the hang of this - partly because to the English these phrases are so familiar that they are not usually quoted in full. Meteorological cliches are particularly familiar and, as such, never completed. So "it's an ill wind…", "it never rains…", "every cloud…" and so on tumble one upon the other and only the English know just how little they all really mean.

Distancing themselves from any confrontation, they will play down any anger or enthusiasm they may feel in a way which is satisfyingly maddening to foreigners. They have even evolved a special vocabulary for the purpose. One of the stars in this particular firmament is the poisonous little word "nice".


"Nice" is the most overworked word in the English language whose meaning can only be divined by its context.

Being essentially non-specific and uncontentious, it can be used on any occasion to convey a response generally tending towards non-committal approval of anything from the weather to working practices.

In its negative form - "not very nice" - it describes habits as diverse as nose-picking and cannibalism.

The English grow up with "nice". As children they are warned off antisocial behaviour with the "Nice boys (or girls) don't do that!" and by the time they totter into their first conversations, they can use the word with deadly effect.

They may even imitate their elders by using it sarcastically - a favourite ploy - to put down bad behaviour: "That's nice! That's very nice!", when the tone of voice says it all. Sarcasm, the heavier the better, is very much part of the English conversational stock in trade.

English Weather

Without the topic of the weather, the English would be without one of the most useful weapons in their conversational armoury.

Rather like the inhabitants, the weather in the British Isles is particularly unpredictable. The geographic location of the country makes it naturally prey to momentary atmospheric changes, and forward planning of any out-door event is fraught with dangers.

The English have, of course, lived with this situation for hundreds of years. Nevertheless, it appears that the changeability of the weather always takes them by surprise. If it snows, the country's transport systems grind immediately to a halt while negotiations are made to import snow-ploughs from abroad. In the spring, flash flooding annually drives householders up on to their roofs, and the innocent falling leaves of autumn cause the railways to seize up completely.

But while late frosts kill cherished plants and cloudbursts wash away the tea tents at village fetes in high summer, they have, in English eyes, a higher purpose - to furnish conversation. The weather is not just their preferred conversational topic, it is their favourite gripe. If it is hot, it is always "too hot". If it is cold, it is "freezing".

Of course it is all so much mouth music and you can bet that the English man or woman you are talking to is merely marking conversational time and either planning an escape route or a deadly verbal thrust. Meanwhile, like a Sumo wrestler sizing up an opponent, he or she will use the weather as a foil before moving in for the kill or out of the ring.


The English view the use of hand gestures in communication with deep suspicion. Fluttering hands and supple wrists are, to them, sure signs of theatricality (insincerity), effeminacy or foreign extraction.

English hands are usually kept firmly to English sides in all conversation. But they should be in sight at all times. It is considered very bad manners to talk to anyone with the hands in the pockets, as if preparing an instrument of aggression or silently counting loose change.

The average English man or woman will usually only use hand gestures when they are absolutely necessary such as for pointing the way (index finger of the right hand extended) or for making a forceful suggestion about your next move (index and middle fingers of the right hand raised vertically). This offensive gesture was first used, predictably, on the French by English archers at Agincourt when standing just beyond the arrow's reach to indicate that they still had their bow fingers which if they were captured, the French cut off. The gesture survives to this day - a physical expression of the English attitude towards others.

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