The Art of Understatement: How We Use Deception to Communicate Truth

“Understatement is not a trick, not a literary device: it is a way of life.”
George Mikes

A newspaper clip from the London Evening Standard, 6th of June 1944, hangs framed in a pub I frequent. Among other things, it reads “Landings on the beaches are proceeding at various points at the present time…”

The London Evening Standard front page for June 6, 1944.

A framed print on a wall is easily missed, but imagine these words on a paper between your hands, just picked up from the front step. You return to the table, slippers on feet, buttered toast congealing next to cold coffee, the house quiet because you just sent your son/husband/brother et cetera et cetera off to vanquish something they couldn’t describe, couldn’t articulate or in any way prepare for because they did not know themselves.

Neither did you. You are overwhelmed by the unknowing of it all.

Reread the words.

“Landings on the beaches are proceeding at various points at the present time…”

Furthermore:

“The obstacles which were constructed in the sea have not proved so difficult as was apprehended.”

It was D-Day, rewritten as an almost absurd level of understatement that provides minimum comfort to its reader, although to be fair, not too much discomfort either.1

The lines invoke a wonderful truism coined by Hungarian immigrant George Mikes in his exploration of the British culture: “The English have no soul: they have the understatement instead.”

Ah, the understatement. Something about war in particular pulls out literary treachery that is the understatement (and bombastic, nationalistic overstatement):

“Six feet tall was not an ideal height for airplanes” wrote Roald Dahl in his memoirs Going Solo upon arrival at the Royal Air Force training camp. Dahl was a whopping six feet six inches tall.

Photo of Roald Dahl in Dahl's "Going Solo" in the Examined Life Library.
Roald Dahl reporting to RAF flight school, Kenya, 1939. Photograph from the book.

Not only was height not “ideal”, his height forfeited any comfort the little airplane might have afforded and made it almost inoperable. While flying in active duty in WWII, Dahl could only breathe with a scarf around his neck and face, ducking down into the cockpit occasionally to take breaths.

Six feet tall, not ideal height for airplanes.

In the same period of time he wrote to his mother, an individual of warm importance to Dahl throughout his life, “I’m having a lovely time, I never enjoyed myself so much. Flying is grand, instructors are terrific…It’s all marvelous fun.”

“Really Good” by David Shrigley on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, London.

Far be it from me to take aim at anyone’s culture, especially one that I’ve come to love, so I’ll let Mikes do it instead:

The English have no soul: they have the understatement instead. If a continental youth wants to declare his love to a girl, he kneels down, tells her that she is the sweetest, the most charming and ravishing person in the world […] In England the boy pats her adored girl on the back and says softly: ‘I don’t object to you, you know.’

If he is quite mad with passion, he might add: ’I rather fancy you, in fact.’

If he wants to marry a girl, he says: ’I say . . Would you? . . .’

If he wants to make an indecent proposal: ‘I say . . . What about . . .?

From George Mike’s How To Be a Brit

Mikes (pronounced Me-kesh) was born in 1912 in Hungary but lived his adult life in England as a journalist and writer. His outside-in perceptions might be right. That is to say, he’s dead-on accurate.

In his insightful and occasionally self-excoriating memoirs, Englishman Stephen Fry also tosses out classically British gestures of affection and understatement like crumbs to pigeons. Like when his parents sent him off to boarding school, 200 miles away at age 7 (a dramatic event for any child, stiff-upper lip or not):

The loudness and hattedness of Other Parents were not conducive to the particular Fry tokens of love: tiny exertions of pressure on the hands and tight little nods of the head that stood for affection and deep, unspoken understanding. A slightly forced smile and bitten underlip aside Mummy always left the platform outwardly resolute, which was all that mattered.

From Stephen Fry’s Moab is My Washpot

Is Fry being understated about the lack of understatement from his parents? One imagines his actual feelings in the moment were significantly bolder, deeper, messier.

“Afraid” by David Shrigley.

A desire to reduce emotions to minimal bland words rather than swim their fullness. I recall a particular poem by the American poet Robert Lowell on the death of his father. The latter being a man who never, ever, opened up about anything being remotely wrong, was heard to utter his dying words, “I don’t feel well.”

This gentle understatement not only caps off the poem, it caps off a life lived and extinguished.

Father’s death was abrupt and unprotesting,
His vision was still twenty-twenty.
After a morning of anxious, repetitive smiling,
His last words to Mother were:
‘I feel awful.’

From Robert Lowell’s “Terminal Days at Beverly Farms”

And then there is John Steinbeck who wrote in his writing journals:

Let’s get down to earth. this book I’m working on is just a book like any other. Let’s work on it and not get wild. If it flops it flops, and that is that.

Journal Entry 45, August 2

The “book” (which Steinbeck did not refer to as a “novel” until after it was published) was The Grapes of Wrath, one of the great American novels and the bedrock of Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize award two decades later. Was it understated grace or merely the dampening of expectations? What can we read into his words?

Perhaps it was expected that individuals add a dose of humility when writing personal journals. Even Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius introduced his personal Meditations with a self-description: ‘a male, mature in years, a statesman, a Roman, a ruler.”

The fact that we are still reading this “ruler” today suggests more than this quick byline ever could. Perhaps he knew that.

The understatement can indicate humility, thrift of one’s self, subterfuge based on the need to appear less (while all the while knowing the opposite to be true).

At the same time, I wonder if the use of understatement, at least in Western cultures, owes less to cultural instinct and more to the fact that our human need to self-express is paired with language that lacks sophistication to meet these self-expression needs.

“I’m fine, it’s fine” means the exact opposite. Do we have the language to say more? Do we have the language to listen?

There is a beautiful Welsh word hireath, which loosely means an intense longing to return to a place of memory, an almost paralysing homesickness towards an inexpressible object. (I’m informed by a Welsh colleague that even all these words do not come close to its meaning and hireath simply does not exist in English.)

The French have a similar phrase mal du pays. Which again refers to an impossible longing. I wonder how those soldiers approaching D-Day landings would have described their emotions towards home, towards what was to come.

With image rather than words.

Marc Chagall’s “Memory, painted in 1914.

Language is a barometer of emotion, both felt and repressed, conscious and unconscious. It measures the rise and fall of the human spirit through all the terabytes of time we call a life. It uses meaning, subtext, subterfuge and precision. It is a sophisticated and complex thing practiced by billions of people simultaneously to connect, commune and exhale our self into one another.

What do we say when words fall short? When we cannot accurately convey the full embodiment of a situation?

We bury this complicated, muddy, hairy, fungy thing that is the entirety of emotional truth in mundane words and innocuous phrases. We verbally shrug off any hint of importance.

“I’m hanging on quite comfortably” from David Shrigley’s perfectly absurd and completely accurate portrait of unhappy humankind.

Or so it would seem.

What the British (and other cultures that regularly use understatements as a way of life) know is that often the understatement is so monotonous, so utterly stripped of accessory, that it’s very presence suggests – no, proves – something of great meaning.

“Landings on the beaches are proceeding…”

“Six feet tall was not an ideal height for airplanes…”

“Don’t do this” by David Shrigley.

“Is it any wonder that since then, sleep tends to elude me?” the words written by Elie Wiesel about his first nights in Auschwitz after becoming aware that human beings were being thrown into furnaces. The entirely of this knowledge, even writing years after the fact, eluded full expression. The first time I read that the stark lack of emotion, the limited expression was so jarring, so unbelievably not enough.

The understatement, quite unique in this way, takes that rising and falling barometer of human being and sets it to naught. No one would read these lines and imagine anything but a giant truth hides behind the paltry wall of words. A giant truth so beyond comprehension that language – Wiesel’s or anyone else’s – ill-prepared him to communicate. No one would fall to feel deeply upon hearing/reading Wiesel’s understatement “sleep tends to elude me”.

His words were enough after all.

The understatement is fine.

Do we do it in treachery? In cheek? Do we know that the understatement, by its very existence, suggests the presence of something even bigger unsaid? So is it laziness, or rather habit? An amygdala shutdown that overrides our articulation?

Yes? Yes. Some. All? Does it matter?

The understatement is fine. That is to say, it does the job.