Understatement

We’ve all misjudged others from time to time. In particular, we may mentally write off someone who is really quite accomplished at something and refer to them using an understatement. Sometimes it can be the opposite – how bad something or someone is may be minimized with an understatement. Here are some well-known understatements.

Fred Astaire, now recognized as Hollywood’s best or at least most successful dancer of all time, auditioned for a role before he was successful. The executive who  watched him wrote, “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Slightly balding. Can dance a little.”

When British Airways Flight 9 flew through volcanic ash near Indonesia in 1982, the captain made this announcement over the intercom: “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.”

Then of course there was Apollo 13 and the famous line “Houston, we have a problem.”

Charles Darwin was underestimated by his family and peers. He himself wrote, “I was considered by all my masters and my father, a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard of intellect.”

Oprah Winfrey was fired from one of her first television jobs because, as her boss said, she was “unfit for TV.” That one, like Darwin’s, wasn’t really an understatement, but a misstatement, but the same sort of misjudgement.

Another intentional understatement like the Flight 9 one, made to prevent a bad situation from becoming worse, was that of Antarctic explorer Laurence Oates. Knowing he was slowing down his troubled expedition, he left them during a blizzard with the words, “I am just going outside and may be some time.” He was never seen again. His three companions continued on, but his sacrifice was in vain: they all died days later, frozen to death. His statement was only known from the records in the notebooks of his companions.

 

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