A quality that is much revered – and exploited – by the British, understatement is frequently seen as being synonymous with good manners. Understatement is characterised by a number of negatives: a refusal to be effusive, overdramatic, emphatic or didactic. More direct remarks are frequently accompanied by tentative or provisional qualifications: ‘perhaps’, ‘it could be’, ‘I wonder if’, ‘maybe’.The overall effect is an aura of modest reticence, quiet understanding and considerate behaviour. Like self-deprecation, understatement is an attractive and effective quality, which is often more persuasive, and appealing, than a direct approach.
Understatement permeates British humour; the unexpectedly low-key response to dramatic crises is a staple of the likes of Monty Python: when, for example, a bourgeois English dinner party is disrupted by a visit from Death, in the guise of the Grim Reaper, in The Meaning of Life, the classic response is ‘Well, that’s cast rather a gloom over the evening, hasn’t it?’.