For example, when a German manager says there is a slight problem, he can probably calibrate the slightness to three decimal places. When a Brit says it, you can be sure it’s anything but slight. The conversation might go something like this (note the modifiers):
- Er, sure. Everything OK?
- Yes, fine. We’ve got a slight problem here at the plant, that’s all.
- Anything I can do?
- No, not really. It’s on fire.
This is not just a case of British understatement. You may recall the Monty Python sketch in which an army officer, who has just had his leg bitten off by a tiger, is asked how he feels. "Stings a bit," he replies. The key phrase here is "a bit". A bit, a little, a tad, quite, rather, slightly, somewhat. What is it about these meaningless little modifiers we just can’t resist? Could it possibly be genetic?
It works both ways, of course. If our softeners don’t really soften, then our intensifiers don’t intensify either. When a Brit responds to your business proposal with "very interesting", you may as well book your flight home. Anything said "with the greatest respect" means, of course "with the utmost contempt". Most sentence adverbs lie as well. "Hopefully" routinely expresses despair and a point mentioned "incidentally" is likely to be the most important thing on the agenda.
Take a lesson from American author Stephen King who observed: "The Road to Hell is paved with adverbs."