Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Transatlantic Trouble: British and American English

Transatlantic Trouble: British and American English

Although British and American people technically speak the same language, there are lots of variations in the kinds of English we speak. We’ll discuss some of the most important ones, focusing on both language and culture. This time let’s think about how British and American people talk about achievements.

◆◆◆ I nailed it! ◆◆◆
SARAH says:
A big difference I’ve noticed between American and British behaviour is the way in which we talk about our achievements. Americans seem to “sell themselves” more, whereas us Brits tend to be more humble. For example if I cook a nice meal then I might say “this isn’t so bad today…” or “this is quite good” if I do say so myself, but if Sam cooks a nice meal then he has no problem in saying “this is amazing!” In the UK it doesn’t look good to boast about yourself, your skills and achievements. We even have some expressions to describe this idea, for example we say “don’t blow your own trumpet,” or “don’t sing your own praises.” Of course in a job interview it’s different—you are expected to sell yourself, but in a social situation I prefer to be more self-deprecating. Although I may know I am good at doing something, I would never say so, because I don’t want to appear “full-of-myself.”

Sometimes I even get embarrassed if Sam says nice things about me in front of other people. One of my previous students once told Sam she thought I was a good teacher and he replied with “I know!”—I felt so embarrassed! I thought he should have said something like “Well she really enjoyed teaching you so she’ll be happy you said that.” I was worried that he sounded a bit arrogant…

SAM says:
There is no doubt that on the whole, Americans tend to build themselves up more than Brits. In the U.S., it’s seen as extremely important to raise children to believe in themselves in order to be confident in what they are doing. The traditional British idea of self-effacement is often seen by unaware Americans as a sign of weakness or lack of confidence.
This idea is ingrained in American culture. We like to think of our country as the land of opportunity, where anyone can succeed with enough hard work, determination, and self-belief. Whether or not this is in fact true, is beside the point. Being proud of yourself, your family, or your country, and not being afraid to say so, is seen as a great quality to have in America. It’s why so many Americans can say definitively that we are the best at nearly everything. We don’t need proof; we’ve got blind faith and boundless self-confidence!

But all jokes aside, why would anyone want to sell themselves short? I’ve never understood why Sarah feels embarrassed in such situations, and am frankly astonished when she later scolds me for being so arrogant. What she also fails to realize, is that in my opinion, I am being humble about her achievements. Honestly, to say that Sarah is a good teacher is a complete understatement.
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Sam and Sarah Greet have been teaching English and travelling the world together for seven years. Sarah is from Bristol in the South West of England, and Sam is from the U.S. city of Philadelphia. Despite being together as a couple for many years, they are always finding differences in the way they speak.

The British Council is the United Kingdom’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. We offer practical English lessons for both adults and kids in Tokyo and Yokohama. For more information, please visit British Council