Understatement is a storytelling and communication technique that uses less dramatic language than would be expected for a given situation. It is the opposite of exaggeration.In a world full of exaggerated expressions and over dramatization of the mundane, understatement can be an effective technique for influencing and storytelling. Understatement often has a slightly comical effect. Alternatively, it may be used to demonstrate bravery and professionalism in the most difficult of situations.
British Airways Flight 9The following announcement on British Airways Flight 9 is often cited as an example of understatement.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.~ Captain Eric Moody, British Airways Flight 9The engines on British Airways Flight 9 had stopped after ingesting volcanic ash. The engines were down for about 14 minutes and the crew was preparing procedures to ditch the 747 in the sea. Given its initial altitude, the flight was able to glide about 23 minutes. Finally the engines started and the flight landed safely.
CultureThe British have a rich culture of understatement including a tendency to understate dramatic adversity such as battlefield situations. There are several recorded examples of miscommunication that occurred between British and American forces in WWII. For example, British brigadier Thomas Brodie reported a desperate battlefield situation as "A bit sticky, things are pretty sticky down there" which the Americans interpreted as a report that everything was fine.Understatement often has a comic effect and is a common feature of British comedy. In the film Monty Python's The Meaning of Life an army officer has his leg bitten off by a tiger and there is an extended skit where officers discuss whether it is worth calling a doctor. The doctor arrives and tells the patient it is nothing to worry about. When asked how it feels the patient replies "it stings a bit."
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