You must be joking!
Oh, come off it!

After you’ve given an opinion, you may hear any one of those from an English friend or a colleague you know well. And, of course, the message is completely clear: your friend or colleague disagrees with you.

Now imagine that you express your opinion or make a suggestion in a meeting and your boss says:

Anyway, that’s something to think about.

That sounds pretty positive, doesn’t it? Ok, she’s perhaps being a little non-committal and may still be open for other suggestions. But you’d probably go away from the meeting thinking that – in general – your boss agrees with your opinion or likes your idea. I’m afraid that may not be the case.  

It’s easy to mistake disagreement for agreement

In England, disagreement isn’t always stated as clearly as in the phrases I gave at the beginning. And in more formal situations or where there is a greater distance between the people involved, disagreement can be expressed so indirectly that it’s easily mistaken for agreement.

Other phrases which may also be used to say “I disagree” include:

Well that’s one way of looking at it.
We could do that, or …
What other options are there?

How do you know if you can take the words at face value or not? To be honest, it’s very difficult for me to say. Perhaps being English I just have a sort of sixth sense. But the tone of voice and facial expressions often provide valuable clues. Which makes it particularly difficult when they’re missing – in emails, for example.

Should you follow suit?

Especially in international meetings it’s essential to get your message across clearly to people of different nationalities and with various levels of competence in English. So I wouldn’t recommend that you learn these phrases and use them to express your disagreement. However, it is important to be aware of their meaning so that you understand the message if your English colleagues use them.

What the English mean, what others understand 

If you’re interested in other examples where there’s a huge difference between what the English mean and what other nationalities understand, have a look at this translation table which was published in The Economist in 2011.


Porträt Nicola Bartlett
Nicola Bartlett
I’ve been an English trainer for over 25 years, helping adults to get their message across in English – clearly and appropriately. Successful communication in English requires more than just a good knowledge of the language. An understanding of different mentalities and a feeling for the best approach are vital, too. » more