The young German student looked confused. “So, when the English say ‘we agree with you up to a point, but ...’, they really mean ‘we don’t agree with you’,” he was trying to clarify in one of my lessons at the OISE Oxford school this year.
“Yes,” I said.
“So, why do they not simply say, ‘We don’t agree with you’?”
“Because the British don’t like being direct,” I explained. “We don’t always like to say what we mean.”
“Oh,” the student replied, the expression on his face now changing from simple confusion to complete bewilderment. It was a look I have seen so many times over the years as a teacher when I have tried to introduce international students to the subtle arts of Anglo-Saxon negotiating.
And now, if a recent report by the BBC is anything to go by, it’s a look that can be widely seen in the German corridors of power as chancellor Angela Merkel and her colleagues try to work out exactly what Britain means by Brexit.
The story, according to BBC Berlin correspondent Damien McGuinness, goes like this: last year, British prime minister David Cameron tried to coax Merkel into giving him a special deal which would involve Britain opting out of free movement of people while staying in the European single market. Merkel said “no”. And she meant it. So much so that when Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, tried to persuade her again a few weeks ago, she said it again. “No”.
Yet all the talk in Westminster continues to be about how the UK can enjoy the best bits of the single market on the one hand, while enforcing stricter border controls on the other. This is leading to increasing frustration in Berlin.
The frustration is borne out of the fact that, in Germany, “nein” means “nein”. It doesn’t mean well, ok, if you insist, then maybe yes, as the British seem to think it means. It just means “no”.
And this is where we get to the real nub of the matter. Quite simply, the Germans and the British have very different ways of communicating. In meetings, the German communication style is frank, direct and consistent.
The British, in contrast, almost revel in ambiguity. Rhetorical vagueness with a few jokes thrown in for good measure is often their way of doing things.
All this doesn’t bode well for the forthcoming talks over Britain’s departure from the European Union, says the recent BBC report. When Theresa May sits down to thrash out the finer details of Brexit with her Berlin counterpart, it says, she might do well to remember that, in Germany, they mean what they say.
Meanwhile, here at Oise we pride ourselves in the way we promote intercultural awareness. So, if you're a Brexit-weary German diplomat, or any international student for that matter who wants to avoid misunderstandings when negotiating in English, then get in contact.
Simon Wilcox is a tutor at OISE with a background in journalism. Holding a Postgraduate Diploma in Broadcast Journalism, Simon has worked for several broadcasters, including the BBC, in England and in Singapore.