A Brit’s take on American English
Posted by Vicki Hollett on July 17, 2010
The US is a hazardous place for Brits. Since moving to Philadelphia, I’ve inadvertently commented on my hostess’s homely (=ugly) home; I’ve offended my gay neighbours by mentioning their fairy (=holiday) lights and I’ve even described the deceased at a funeral as having a wicked (=nasty – but not in Boston, where I might have been understood) sense of humour.
But there are lots of mistakes I’ve avoided. I’ve understood that batteries don’t go flat here (they die instead) and at the hardware store I’ve learnt how to ask for rawl plugs (=anchors) to put in the plasterboard (=sheet rock) along with some polyfilla (=spackle). I can now dress myself in trousers (=pants) with turn ups (=cuffs) and a jumper (=sweater – take it from me, ’merican jumpers are not a fashion item you’d ever want to wear). So I like to think I’ve had a lot of successes here. When I’ve written something wrongly, I’ve avoided asking my co-workers to lend me a rubber (=contraceptive). And when I’ve forgotten my alarm clock, I’ve never asked my travelling companions to knock me up (=get me pregnant) in the morning.
But whenever I open my mouth here, I’m conscious that it’s always a bit of an experiment. People think we speak the same language and they reason I know what I’m saying, but I don’t. The lexical differences are fun, but they’re actually small fry. Learning how to structure my thoughts ’merican-style is the biggest challenge for me.
The different styles of politeness are tricky. Putting it crudely, I come from a culture where politeness is mostly about not getting in anyone’s way, but in the US it’s more about awarding esteem. I have to remember to show approval, warmth and friendliness, and that’s tough for a Brit. If you think about it, the stereotypical Brit is aloof, standoffish and reserved. Our customs dictate we should leave people alone so they can go about their business without us getting in their way. Meanwhile the stereotype of the American is friendly and garrulous – someone who gives you a run-down of their entire life history within five minutes of meeting them. It’s just not polite to hold back, so I’ve had to learn to show more solidarity, share and be open.
It’s not that one form of politeness is good or bad, but they are different. Have you had any similar experiences with British/American differences? If so, please do share. And in my best British, I do hope I haven’t gone on too long and reading this hasn’t been a bother. And in my best ’merican, y’all come back sometime and set awhile, ye hear?