Is British politeness a contravention of scripture?

I was absolutely fascinated by this brief BBC 4 comment on the linguistic and cultural differences between UK and German politics (please follow the link above to listen, it didn’t seem to want to embed on the blog). In Britain, we are notoriously bad at saying what we really mean. We dress it up as politeness when, more often than not, it is just an unwillingness to say what we think and live with the consequences. A long while ago now, a Chinese friend of mine shared the meme below, which he said expressed his experience of dealing with the British.


As the BBC 4 commentator so rightly points out:

In British English, of course, ‘no’ can mean yes‘, ‘yes’ can mean ‘no’and ‘maybe’, ‘possibly’ and ‘I would love to but…’ can mean either.

By contrast, ‘in Germany, no means no’. My Chinese friends (and, it has to be said, many of my other friends of varying nationalities) are often equally baffled by the apparently obvious subtext we Brits continually fail to recognise nobody else understands.

I am put in mind of two biblical statements that rather speak to this tendency. First, Jesus Christ says:

“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matthew 5:33-37)

In a similar vein, the apostle James says:

But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation. (James 5:12)

In neither case do I think the point being made is never take an oath, otherwise God himself sinned according to Hebrews 6:13. Rather, the point seems to be that Christians ought to be so characterised by truth that the need for oaths is redundant. That is, there should be no subtext to our words and people shouldn’t constantly be second-guessing whether we mean what we say.

Which brings me back to the issue of British culture and subtext. Clearly there are good and honourable things within all cultures, just as there are things that are less likely to be carried over into the New Jerusalem. The question is: is the British approach to politeness – certainly what we presume constitutes polite conversation and the subtext behind it – at odds with the words of Jesus and James? In other words, does British politeness contravene scripture?

Answers on a postcard.