IN 1951, during the Korean war, 30,000 Chinese troops tried to take Seoul.
They attacked at the Imjin river in a ‘human wave’.
This is the belief that, however many get killed, they must win by weight of numbers.
It didn’t matter how many died because the Chinese had many more soldiers.
600 British soldiers from the Gloucester Regiment were defending a ridge.
In their sector, they were outnumbered 8 to 1, obviously they should withdraw.
The British Brigadier, Tony Brodie, called his superior, US General Robert H. Soule.
The American General had to decide whether to withdraw the troops.
He asked what their situation was.
The British Brigadier said “Things are a bit sticky, sir”.
And the entire battle swung on that phrase.
The American General interpreted it to mean “It’s rough, but we can hold out”.
What the English Brigadier actually meant was “It’s bad, we can’t last long”.
So the American General instructed the troops to stay put, not to withdraw.
Which is what the British did, and after 4 days the Chinese won.
There were many thousands of Chinese dead, with 59 British dead and 500 captured.
We lost those men because of the way that phrase was interpreted.
But how can that be when the US and UK speak the same language?
Well, because of cultural differences, the same words have different meanings.
For instance, a simple thing like the word ‘aggressive’.
In America it’s a compliment, in Britain it’s an insult.
The same with the word ‘outspoken’.
Americans believe plain speaking is a good thing, the British believe it’s rude.
I trained in New York, so I tend to be a bit blunt by UK standards.
Jim Kelly once said “The problem with Dave is he says exactly what he’s thinking”.
In the UK this is discourteous, a lack of manners.
Because we always need to consider the other person’s feelings before we speak.
Whereas in America that would be seen as dishonest, afraid to speak the truth.
Ed McCabe describes it as like asking someone in the street for a light.
“If I say ‘Excuse me, I normally wouldn’t bother you, but I left my cigarette lighter at home this morning, so I wonder, if it wouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience, if I could possible trouble you…” But it’s too late, they’re gone.
But if I say “Got a light?” I get my light.”
The main difference seems to be how we interpret respect for other people.
In the UK, respect is worrying about their feelings, in the US it’s not wasting their time.
I was a copywriter in New York, and it was difficult, like learning a foreign language.
Then I came back to the UK and it was easy, everyone thought and spoke just like me.
But my American friends still struggle with UK English, they say “Jesus, you need subtitles under them to understand what they’re saying.”
In the US if you show someone a script and they say ‘Interesting’ it means “It could be good, keep going”.
In the UK it means “I’m turning it down without hurting your feelings.”
That’s why, like all communication, you should start at the receiving end.
Not with how you want to say it, but with how will it be heard.
Recently, an American friend sent me an email ending “Good to see you’re still a troublemaker, Trott”.
Luckily I can speak American and I knew he meant it as a compliment because in the UK of course that would be an insult.
That’s why we always need to remember, the one who decides the meaning isn’t the one speaking, it’s the one listening.
The best advice I heard in this area is as follows:
“In communication it’s not enough to express yourself correctly, you need to make sure you’re heard correctly.”