Us Brits are a curious nation. We speak one of the most diverse languages on the planet, with well-spread roots branching out to German, Dutch, Yiddish, Polish, Latin, Gujarati, Kurdish and Bengali, to name a few. For those who speak English as a second language it’s a notoriously complex one to get your head, and tongue, around.
But it’s not just the nuts and bolts of our mother tongue; our ever-confusing there, they’re and theirs that confound; it’s our curious phrases, sayings, contradictions and downright quirks that leave many a non-British visitor scratching their heads.
There’s good reason why we’re so often portrayed as bumbling, over-apologetic (count how many times you say sorry in one day) or downright quirky, and our language is just a part of it. More often it’s the curious traits that come as part of the British package that shape our collective national identity.
It’s not just us here at Joules who revel in our British eccentricities; we caught up with Rob Temple, founder of the gloriously successful Very British Problems, a Twitter feed that gently mocks everyday British dilemmas, to discuss the generally hilarious, very often tragic traits that are at the very core of what it means to be British.
Rob, a freelance journalist who lives in south London, began Very British Problems in 2012; his little odes in 140 characters or less describe the awkward situations we all find ourselves in on a daily basis. Rob describes them as “a constant double meaning of language – ‘honestly I’m fine’ to indicate you’re furious, saying something’s ‘not too bad actually’ to indicate it’s the best thing ever.” The feed struck a chord quickly and within a month had gained 100,000 followers and landed a book deal.
“Playing up to the bumbling, insecure, apologising, reserved kind of Brit you often see in American films” is Rob’s own observation, “It’s a sending up of the [British] stereotype. There is, of course, a lot of tea and weather discussed.” On its success, he believes it’s the “characters and topics that a lot of people seem to identify with. No matter who you are, what you do, or where you come from you’ll recognise something of yourself in the feed.”
Rob’s favourite tweet, or rather the situation that he relates to himself is “the overwhelming dread that accompanies the sentence: Before we start let’s go around the room and say a little bit about ourselves”. Cue mumbling, apologies and stumbled over words. When told that we found it impossible to read the feed in anything other than Hugh Grant’s voice circa Notting Hill or Four Weddings and a Funeral, Rob’s in agreement, “Hugh Grant, or David Mitchell. On trips to the US I’ve found myself talking like him, or inexplicably Jamie Oliver.”
Very British Problems now has over one million Twitter followers all finding a common bond, a second book, Very British Problems Abroad published by Sphere is due out later in the year and Rob informs us that there’s “a very big thing that’s yet to be announced” (we have our fingers crossed in the office for a TV programme).
We might land in some terrible predicaments but we’re truly excellent at poking fun at ourselves. Whether you identify with the unshakeable belief that there’s no situation on this good earth that a decent cup of tea can’t fix, our painstaking politeness, unbearable embarrassment in social situations or endless capacity to discuss the weather, in Rob’s own words “when I say you’re not alone, I really do mean it.”
We’ll leave you in true Very British Problems style: