Stiff Upper Lip


Informant (A) is a British international student studying at USC and grew up in London for his whole life.

Main Piece:

I: Okay, so have you ever heard of the phrase “stiff upper lip” and do you know what sort of context it’s used in?

A: Yes, I think that, um, the phrase kinda refers to people who are a little more serious and aren’t really as in touch with their emotions and don’t really like to have as much kinda fun, and aren’t so playful, and I think generally yeah, it is used to, you can use it to describe British people sometimes, because I think that a lot of British people are known to be kind of very, kind of, strong workers who kind of just drink tea and are grumpy and don’t really like, uh, I mean they just like to complain about things all the time. That’s a big staple of the UK, complaining, it’s massive.


I had heard the phrase “stiff upper lip” at a talk by Tan France (Pakistani-British) who claimed British people were less emotional compared to Americans, and wondered if my informant also knew about this phrase.


The phrase is an example of blason populaire. The idea that British people are less emotional is a stereotype and also a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy—as my informant (jokingly) states, complaining is “a big staple of the UK, complaining, it’s massive”, so there is possibly a bit of pride in embracing this stereotype as well. At my original encounter of this piece of folklore, Tan France used this phrase in front of an overwhelming majority of Americans. Blason populaire is one method of separating people via their identity and creates a generalization of people that belong to that identity which can either poke fun at people who don’t belong to that identity or at themselves. I believe Tan France was utilizing the former in his performance, while my informant was leaning towards the latter. My informant later gives many possible reasons why this image of British people may exist, from the idea that this may have stemmed from wartime so “the fun gene was destroyed” and there is much more judgment within UK society as a result, or that weather in the UK is generally gray and rainy (compared to LA which is notably more sunny). Within his reasons, he consistently refers back to American people as a point of comparison, further proving the point of blason populaire as separation.