YouGov survey: British sarcasm 'lost on Americans'


Oct 27, 2017
North East, UK
YouGov survey: British sarcasm 'lost on Americans'

Britons like to think they have a "special relationship" with the US, based on a common language and cultural, historical and political ties.

But, according to one of the UK's most respected polling companies, there's one chasm the English language can't always bridge - the British love of passive-aggressive statements.

In the words of YouGov, "half of Americans wouldn't be able to tell that a Briton is calling them an idiot".

YouGov showed a number of common British phrases, including "with the greatest respect", "I'll bear it in mind" and "you must come for dinner", to Britons and Americans.

"While not all the phrases show a difference in transatlantic understanding, there are some statements where many Yanks are in danger of missing the serious passive aggression we Brits employ," YouGov said.

The starkest difference was in the phrase "with the greatest respect" - which most Britons took to mean "I think you are an idiot", but nearly half of Americans interpreted as "I am listening to you".

YouGov based its survey on a popular meme of British phrases and their subtext.

It's not clear who came up with the table, although it's done the rounds online for several years - and was first seen by the BBC in 2011 in a blog by Oxfam.

YouGov decided to show the same phrases, and each of the meanings, to about 1,700 Brits and 1,900 Americans, and asked them which matched their own interpretation the most closely.

The survey showed that some - though not all - of the stereotypes in the table were statistically correct.

There was plenty of common ground - for example, a majority of both British and US adults consider "I was a bit disappointed that" a polite way of saying "I am annoyed that" - rather than "it doesn't really matter".

But those in the UK are much more likely to consider "I'll bear it in mind" and "I hear what you say" to be attempts to brush you off.

And a higher proportion of Britons than Americans (44% to 31%) think "that is a very brave proposal" actually means "you are insane".

Plenty of Americans working in the UK have complained about British passive-aggressiveness, or their annoying tendency to beat around the bush.
But UK expats have also complained about American insults directed at Brits.

One writer for BBC America came up with the following translations for American English:

Americans say This means
I love it! You just don't CARE, do you?What the hell did you just do? I'm dying of embarrassment here
Oh, you can get away with it, you're British An American wouldn't be seen dead wearing what you're wearing or doing what you just did
Bless her heart! This phrase is a bit of a put down, effectively allowing the speaker to slag off someone without recrimination.

At the end of the day, while the British may like to think they have a more sophisticated sense of sarcasm, they might have more in common with their American cousins than they think.

We'll bear that in mind.


Nov 6, 2017
Where the Fenians Sleep
As someone with a very identifiable American accent who lives in Britain, I can confirm that British people assume Americans can't understand sarcasm. In my experience the Irish are a bit better in not assuming that all Americans are morons. Surprisingly the Scots are only a bit better than the English about this as well.
Last edited:


Oct 25, 2017
The Hundred Acre Wood
I would imagine intonation has a lot to do with it-- I mean it seems weird to say "here's some text, is the person outright lying to you or not?"

It's also cultural to certain locations. In LA for instance "we should get lunch sometime" means "it was nice seeing you briefly but I wouldn't be too bothered if we never crossed paths again"

That said Americans being exceedingly "direct" is both a blessing and a curse I suppose

Admiral Woofington

The Fallen
Oct 25, 2017
This just seems like a sort of idiom they've all agreed means something and Americans read it more straightforward because we're used to being direct I guess.