The Great British Mag team published the article What is the “British Stiff Upper Lip”? on 30 January 2020.
Brits are not usually known for being fond of hugs. We’re not particularly comfortable expressing our feelings, or being on the receiving end of anyone else expressing theirs. But what, you ask, has any of this got to do with inflexible top lips? Let us explain:
The expression “stiff upper lip” refers to the emotionally stunted way in which Brits suppress their true upset, anger or hurt in times of crisis. We supposedly keep a national stiff upper lip during wars and other countrywide catastrophes, and on a personal level whenever things are not going well. Anything from a death to a job loss to divorce—or equally something as trivial as a bad haircut—could trigger a Brit to grab those negative feelings and swallow them down.
Interestingly, the phrase has always been used in reference to the British but it seems to have originated in America. Davy Crockett, the soldier, frontiersman and politician, referred to it in his 1834 autobiography, and it had an entry in a dictionary of Americanisms first published in 1848.
In decades past, keeping a stiff upper lip was essential in controlling the situation, not rocking the boat and generally making those around you feel more comfortable than yourself. This very much extends to your family because an unfortunate outburst could shock and alienate one’s family. Which is pretty much the entire premise of Downton Abbey.
Nowadays, the idea that the British “keep a stiff upper lip” in the face of any and all adversity seems as outdated as the Spice Girls and permed hair. Just look at the weekly outpouring of emotions and tears on TV’s X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing. But the stereotype has stuck.
While our stiff upper lips have softened over the years, the royal family has tried to keep this trait alive. They still seem to ooze steely stoicism in the face of tragedy and intense criticism. Partly it’s because we expect them to just do this and partly it’s just easier to stay strong and silent when you’re a national institution, rather than breakdown and publicly reveal your frailty.
The rest of us have moved on to some degree, but that doesn’t mean we Brits are now entirely comfortable with expressing ourselves emotionally. To an outsider — possibly from a warmer, cuddlier culture — we can still come across as hard shelled. If you want to make a Brit warm up to you, it can be a bit of a process. But once we crack, anything could happen — from entire life story reveals to deepest darkest confessions.
You have been warned.