In a documentary that aired this weekend, American-born royal family member Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, said she tried to “adopt this British sensibility of a ‘stiff upper lip’” in the face of press scrutiny and racism, but expressed “what that does internally is probably really damaging.”
The statement comes just weeks after Meghan Markle and Prince Harry announced a lawsuit against tabloid the Mail on Sunday after it published excerpts from a private letter written to her father in February.
Meghan is right, of course, in both this being a British sensibility and it being damaging. Keeping a “stiff upper lip” is often seen as a pillar of British culture. Stretching back to the Victorian era and World Wars, the idiom is meant to embody British resolve, stoicism and of course the necessity of keeping one’s emotions in check. “Refrain from crying,” the phrase suggests. Don’t let your quivering upper lip betray the emotions you have buried in the face of adversity.
The idea is historical as well as modern. A World War I marching song, published in 1915 in London, tells us to “pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag, and smile, smile, smile.” In 1939, the Ministry of Information produced almost 2.5 million posters showing a Tudor Crown and the phrase, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” While it was intended to strengthen morale in the outbreak of World War II — maintaining necessary production for the war in the face of atrocity — it was ultimately not widely distributed until today, where you can find it on cheap merchandise in tourist shops across London.
But while the idea of keeping a “stiff upper lip” has become synonymous with British culture, it’s far from exclusive to it. The phrase was popularized by the novel “Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves” by P.G. Wodehouse and published in 1963, though research by Phrases.org.uk shows its earliest usage may be American, in a June 1815 edition of the “Massachusetts Spy.” The earliest British source found by that website appears in 1844.
Worldwide, we are taught to keep our emotions in check, to hide our mental health struggles. Men are particularly subject to this, as professional golfer Andrew Jensen asserted in discussion with Movember. Men are told that crying is a weakness. Even U.K. women’s magazine Grazia apologizing last year for suggesting crying men are unattractive. Media bias is even twisted to suit the “stiff upper lip” mentality. In the course of researching for this article, I discovered a 2003 article from The Times which stated that a “stiff upper lip beats stress counseling.” Citing research published by the Oxford-based Cochrane organization, they incorrectly reported, “counseling was at best useless and at worst made people more likely to suffer PTSD.” The original study, however, only reports one session of psychological counseling as ineffective at preventing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It does not make any assertions toward long-term counseling.
Now, younger royals like Meghan Markle are trying to change the narrative not only by talking about it but by facing the idiom head-on. In 2017, Prince William and Prince Harry discussed the trauma they faced following the death of their mother, Princess Diana. Shedding light on the problem of male suicide, William went on to say, “There may be a time and a place for the stiff upper lip, but not at the expense of your health.”
Perhaps wartime Britain was the originally intended time and place for smiling through adversity, but the damage it has done is lasting. A 2013 study found that the British “stiff upper lip” may prevent early presentation for cancer symptoms, while consultant clinical psychologist Sally Austen told the Guardian, “People who might be classed as emotionally ‘strong’ – the stiff upper lipped – are more likely to end up with depression or PTSD than those who recognize their need to express their feelings.”
Meghan Markle is right in saying the British mentality is damaging. We’re often told that one in four adults live with a mental health condition, a statistic mirrored in the United Kingdom and United States. Far from being a British problem alone, we’re taught the world over to bury our struggles to avoid wasting others’ time, to avoid being a “burden,” to remain strong in society’s eyes. In Britain, we are taught to keep a stiff upper lip. In America, the “lesson” is the same, simply in different words. But to be open about our struggles and fears is where true strength lies. We should abandon our stiff upper lips as the archaic notion they are, and embrace openness with each other without fear of judgment.