Quite true, Richard
Richard Branson explains it very well in his book Like a Virgin – Secrets they won’t teach you at business school when explaining a potential misunderstanding with an American music industry executive:
“It came down to our differing interpretation of the word ‘quite’. In British usage, if someone says, ‘I think you have some quite good bands’, it means you have some fair to middling performers. When an American says the same thing, he means you have some very good bands.”
As an American, I cannot highlight how true this is! My first gut reaction to ‘quite’ as in ‘quite beautiful’ means this person has an extra je ne sais quoi to make her/him very beautiful in a special, surprising way. There is a notion of “has exceeded my expectations”, or “intrigues me”, or more prosaically “very”.
Although the pond (the Atlantic Ocean separating the British Isles from the US) seems to be narrowing, and not only as a result of global warming – proactive listening skills are as critical as ever. Even if context seems clear, do not hesitate to ask the speaker to clarify by asking, “When you say ‘quite interesting’, do you mean ‘very interesting’?”, or “Could you explain further?” If there is an age or cultural gap, again, feel free to ask for more information. A friend of mine from India used to smile and explain she spoke and wrote the King’s English, not the Queen’s English. These are important clues, especially if this person is your teacher, co-worker or supervisor.
Other context clues focus on the content: is there room for both a positive and negative evaluation of the usage of ‘quite’? In the first example below, the end of the sentence shows that ‘quite’ intensifies ‘personal’ in the same way as ‘very’ would. ‘Quite warm’ is ambiguous and luckily context clues provide meaning.
The interview questions were quite personal, I did not feel comfortable.
It’s quite warm but better take a jacket, just in case.
What about exams??
Once I was reviewing assessment questions and came upon a multiple-choice question on ‘quite’. It turns out this was a British assessment. I gave a wrong answer (the American-style answer) and got zero points. Some schools may maintain this approach but the general trend is to encourage English language learners (ELLs) to communicate effectively. For example, official language exams such as Cambridge FCE, Proficiency and IELTS accept both British and American English.
A good school or teacher will highlight the difference and make it clear in the context that only one of the two meanings is possible. If both meanings are possible, then both choices should give points. You should look for grammatical clues as well, such as word order or use of a/an, for example. At higher levels however, were you to encounter “quite”, you would probably have to base your answer on the context, just like “in real life”.
And if your teacher tells you your essay is ‘quite good’, double-check!!