Skip to content
Culture & Religion

Why Should I Keep a Stiff Upper Lip?

What an odd and outdated national value the British have.

“Keep a stiff upper lip,” is advice that one pretty much cannot imagine in any accent other than a British one, although it actually originated in America.

Nearly every country has its national value. America even has a name for hers: The American Dream. It’s some combination of being selfstarterish and finding opportunity and succeeding on merit.

But it strikes me as preposterously weird that the British one would simply be an idiomatic version of “grin and bear it.” Doesn’t it seem, among other things, just incredibly… narrow? How could it possibly have come to be so primarily important.

I asked my English friend about it. Like with every question I have ever asked an English person about English History, I was given a lecture about World War Two.

The universality of the pressure to keep a stiff upper lip in England is probably best encapsulated in the iconic and endlessly reproduced and played off poster telling WW2 era Londoners to “Keep Calm and Carry On”.

I know any nation or culture is not homogeneous, and that social development in The UK by no means ended with the fall of the Third Reich. Nonetheless, this does remain a prevalent feature of British culture.

There are two main problems with it:

The first is that it is simply bad advice. It is a strange sort of immature, faux-masculine thinking that hopes to erase the emotional from life. It is an even more perversely harmful sort of thinking that acknowledges the emotional but hopes to force everyone to suppress it all of the time.

One is reminded of Lane Pryce, the token Brit from Mad Men. In the last season (Spoiler alert!) his attachment to keeping a stiff upper lip led him to prefer a grisly self-inflicted death to admitting to relatively minor personal and financial troubles to people who would have gladly helped him.

Not only does everyone have enough information by adulthood, just from personal experience, to know that suppressing emotions is doomed to failure, but also there is simply no good reason to want to.

Sure, outrageous emotional displays like flailing arms and loud sobbing are frowned upon in public, and rightly so. It might be wise to offer advice against what I might call “keeping a flaccid lower lip.”

But, the discomfort with that sort of display of emotion, which discomfort is what makes it frowned upon, comes from empathy. In contrast, the traditional social law to keep a stiff upper lip in England comes from a lack thereof.

There is simply no good reason to want anyone or everyone to keep a stiff upper lip.

The second problem with “keep a stiff upper lip” is that, even if it were good advice, it describes such a small part of life that it makes no sense to elevate it to the primacy of a national value.

Smarter faster: the Big Think newsletter
Subscribe for counterintuitive, surprising, and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday

There are problems with “The American Dream”, which we have discussed to death. But, at least it is genuinely aspirational.

To avoid jingoism and because I am not particularly compelled by either national value, I suggest another.

Hygge, which you can look up how to pronounce, is the national value of Denmark. It is often translated to “coziness”, but that is only part of it. It is, more accurately: “a sense of cozy, friendly, contentment producing eudaimonia.” You can learn more about it here.

So, following the Danes, let’s value trying to make it so that everything is in fact alright, instead of simply encouraging the pretense that everything is alright.


Up Next