When writing gets serious

I’m back in India, helping 1,000 webchatters relate better to UK customers. And I’ve been researching us Brits so I can explain us to Indians.

What’s stuck in my mind is how maddeningly indirect we are. Especially when it comes to talking about tricky subjects.

One difficult subject: death

We’ll go to daft lengths to avoid talking about things we find awkward – which was almost everything. We worry about feeling embarrassed if we don’t know what to say. We worry that the people we’re speaking to will feel awkward too, which would be awkward squared: the modern British equivalent of being paraded naked in the village square.

When a colleague mentioned on Facebook that his dad had died, the messages of support that followed were lovely, and heartfelt. But our awkwardness makes us say things like ‘condolences’ and ‘sorry for your loss’, words we wouldn’t use day-to-day.

How about ‘I’m so sorry, I feel really sad and I hope you’re OK’?

Skirting the subject

It’s also utterly British to avoid difficult subjects by skirting around them. One way is to write and speak passively, and another is to use long words (like condolences). And this is what businesses often do.

Talking of long words, we love our euphemisms. We’ll talk sadly of people ‘passing over’, ‘passing away’, ‘passing on’ or just ‘passing’, which can lead to some serious misunderstandings.

An unfortunate webchat example from a few years ago ran something like this (from memory):

UK customer:
“I’ve just lost my husband.”

Webchat advisor:
“I’m sorry to hear that. Where did you lose him?”

Brits and humour

Or there’s the other approach. The one that really foxes folk who haven’t grown up in the UK – humour. We make fun out of just about every subject. Humour is so ingrained, other nations find it tricky to know when we’re being serious, or joking.

Kicking the bucket, popping your clogs, shuffling off your mortal coil – which used to be serious but sounds so silly it’s swapped to the comedy side.

And there’s the one you use for planning ahead. ‘Say I fall under a bus, then what?’ we’ll ask, when we’re buying a house or taking an insurance policy.

We must take care with the language we use with people who are in pain. But let’s not drown in pompous metaphors and stumble over how to be serious.

We can be clear, and sensitive, without going all around the houses. Because we wouldn’t want to write an accidental letter of condolence to someone whose husband recently spent 20 minutes wandering around Westfield.