Rule Number One to be truly English. Banish at once the following two words from your vocabulary: ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
They are unsightly, un-English, and compromising. They state an absolute, and that is bad-mannered. After all, who gives you the right to dogmatise. Also, they are risky. You could be proved wrong and so be embarrassed. Moreover, they force you to commit yourself, to stand up and be counted and, therefore, leave yourself wide open to attack; in a position from where it is impossible to backtrack.
Throughout History, the English have demonstrated unparalleled skills in military and diplomatic strategy. India was not conquered by brute force but with subtle insinuation. The Spanish Armada was defeated by ruse. ‘Yes’ and ‘no’ are strategically unsound because they paint you into a corner, and it is always better to keep your options open. You never know. At some point in the future, you might change your mind and wish to escape, so better stay within easy access of the emergency exit.
You can see this strategy in action in the seemingly most anodyne daily occurrences.
You leap into the District Line carriage at Earl’s Court just as the doors are about to slide shut. You ask, “Is this going to Wimbledon?”
Time is of the essence and, given the English talent for Economics, you expect a succinct answer. Instead, you get, “I hope so” from one passenger, and “I think so” from another. You are caught up between an act of faith and an intellectual assumption, when all you wanted was the resounding ‘yes’ or ‘no’ of certainty. It is too late to act now. The train doors are firmly closed, and you are left to pray you are on the way to Wimbledon, and not Richmond. Your fellow passengers clearly do not care where they are going. They just enjoy riding the London Underground.
A couple of days ago, I bought some herbs. When I got home, I could not remember whether I had to steep them in a teapot, on simmer them in pan. I rang the shop. The sales assistant pondered. “I imagine you would simmer them,” she finally said.
As politely as I could, I explained that I was not asking her to flex her creative muscles, but to provide specific instructions. On cue, she consulted her more experienced colleague.
At the department store, you ask if the grey chino trousers you want are available in your size. The sales assistant “thinks” they are out of stock. Well… Does she “think” or “know”? Does she “think” she could possibly check for sure?
I once asked a superior of mine if she had an issue with the quality of my work. She answered, “It’s not that.”
… Then… What is it?
Other variations on ‘yes’ and ‘no’ substitutes include:
“Probably” / “Probably not”
“I’m afraid not”
“I would have thought so”
and my all-time favourite “I should think so” (by whose authority?)
One of my teachers at school used to say, “Que ton ‘oui’ soit an ‘oui’ et ton ‘non’ soit un ‘non’. Le reste appartient au Diable.”
Yes. She was French.