Sunday, May 17, 2009

Frames of Reference

Finding your feet in a foreign culture


I chuckled a while back on reading that Lakeland Jo had been called an “anorak” because she blogs. How very insulting. Unfortunately there was no one around with whom to share the joke. The word “anorak” isn’t used a lot around these parts. There are heavy duty Parkas and rain slickers, which are light rain jackets (like cagools). Anoraks however, are simply called jackets, or quilted jackets at the most. And there is certainly no inference of anything train-spotterish attached to them.

Similarly, I can never really use the term “sticky back plastic” with any great results. First, because it’s called contact paper in the US, and second because it was never used for every flipping project on Blue Peter. Saying “Here’s one I made earlier” just makes you look very well-prepared, or obsessive compulsive, depending on the circumstances.

It’s very odd, living without a frame of reference. When I’m with other Brits, I find myself over-indulging in words like “sodding” (my fave), “chuffed” or “dodgy”. After almost 19 years here, I still haven’t lost the urge to say them, and the word “knackered” (my permanent state) constantly creeps into my conversations, only to be met with the glazed-over look Americans get when you’ve completely lost them. The Ball & Chain lived for three years in England and travels there on a (far too) regular basis, so I’m better off than some expats in that he sometimes gets it.

My sons watch Top Gear on a (far too) regular basis, and I’m thrilled at all the English they’re learning. However, they miss so much because they don’t have the “frame of reference”. For example, in one episode where they’re all trying to cobble together a car out of potato peelers, hair accessories and bread bins (or something), gently playing in the background is the Blue Peter theme tune. They couldn’t understand why I was laughing. Another time they asked what “bloddy” was. I knew they didn’t mean “bloody” as I sssay it all the time and they’re very familiar with it.

“Give me the sentence” I asked.

“Oh look, it’s bloddy”, they responded.

No, it wasn’t Noddy.

“Give me the scene” I ventured.

“Well, Hammond was off looking at exotic birds and they called him bloddy.”

“Ah….Bill Oddie”, followed by half an hour’s background information.

I give up sometimes, I really do.


As an expat, I often feel as if I am adrift in a sea of idioms. After seven years, I now know where most of the reefs are, but there is still the overall feeling that I am, ultimately, an outsider, both because I occasionally find myself not understanding what is going on around me, or because, more frequently, I will say something that elicits confused stares instead of understanding.

Even now, while watching TV, my wife will suddenly begin laughing but will be unable to explain why, beyond the brief and unsatisfying explanation that it was, "in reference to a show that was on before you came over."

Conversely, when I make suggestions that our MPs should be enrolled in "Accounting 101" or allude to them arriving at Parliament "on the short bus," no one nods or smirks; they just look confused.

At restaurants, when someone at my table orders the Chocolate Mousse—an occasion that, in the US, practically insists you say, in an appropriate cartoon voice, "Hey Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit outta my hat!"—I have to remain silent, or risk being thought quite mad. And no one gets the double-entendre implicit in "Nice sweater, Mrs. Cleaver," either.

I also sorely miss in the ability to find out a great deal about my drinking companion by his answer to the question, "Ginger or Maryann?" If I tried that here, he would probably think I was asking about his preference of spices. It really leaves me feeling vaguely out of touch, with my companions, as well as society in general.

By not sharing the same frame of reference, you can never truly be one of the crowd; events and conversations will continue to unfold in a place you can only peek into but never be part of; and you will find yourself staying quiet a great deal more than you might prefer.

But for me, the most annoying aspect is—now that I am attaining an age when I can recall a lot of things many of my companions cannot—I can no longer get any mileage out of the fact that I met Virginia O'Hanlon of, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," fame. My one brush with greatness and, just when it starts to do me some good, I move to a country where no one knows who she is.

At least now I can trot out the previously useless fact that I grew up next to the house Jennie Jerome used to live in.

Got something you want us to address? E-mail your suggestion to us or just pop it into the comment box.


  1. Yes, I call this frame of reference a 'shared history'. It is noticeable. I am forever grateful to my grandparents for introducing me to Faulty Towers and All Creatures Great and Small when I was a little girl in the States because at least I have this (weak) marker to refer to!

    I have been in the UK for half my life now, so this is long enough to have developed some shared history with the people here, but there are still times when I am left listening and not sharing. For example, when my husband talks about scavenging pieces of wood for a go-cart from houses destroyed during WWII that had not yet been cleared away in the 1960's. I have no comprehension of what it must have been like to live amongst these ghosts of such a war. Or when he talks about walking down Carnaby Street with his New Groovy Clothes.

    On the other hand, many of my friends are expats from other countries and our lack of shared history is what brings us together--the experience of not having a clue about some subjects our husbands talk about is cohesive.

    I think also that I have experienced this for so long, and have heard these stories and references to tv shows etc for so long (or seen the reruns enough times) that I almost feel like it was part of my history, thus it has become easier to develop this 'frame of reference' even if through a vicarious source!

    This is a great topic--I blogged about this in a post on Culture Shock and cited it as one reason people struggle with culture shock-- a lack of 'frame of reference' or 'shared history' with the host culture.

    Good points made here!

  2. Great post. Yes, there is so much knowledge that really you can't just learn.

    I still haven't worked out exactly what the "three second rule" is. It's to do with 4-way stops, I think, but seems to be quoted in other contexts too.

  3. And "brownie points". You can't tell someone they have got "brownie points". I miss that.

  4. Wait, what Iota? You can't say brownie points in the US? I know I grew up with that expression. And I must admit I have no idea what a three second rule would have to do with four way stops (but hey I don't drive). The only thing I can think of like that is the 3/5/10 second rule for picking up food off the floor and still being able to eat it.

    I haven't really had the experience of a total loss of shared culture, as the only country I've ever lived in besides the US is Canada. Mostly what I realized living there was how much children's television that I grew up with was actually Canadian. There were some difference around the edges, but since most of my friends were anglophones the bulk of pop culture was held in common. My biggest missing points were Canadian political humor and since people mostly talk about current stuff I was able to catch up in a couple months.

  5. Iota - I agree with Elizabeth that the 'three second rule' definitely refers to something you've dropped on the ground. The more kids you have, the longer the seconds involved I have found!

  6. Yes, it's true that there are wonderful words, phrases and tv shows used and referred to in the UK that we N Americans might not yet be familiar with.

    But there is so much more cultural sharing than not. The US might not use "knackered" but we certainly understand the concept of being tired and stressed from the work week.

    And think of all the things we do share: If "Ginger or Mary Anne?" doesn't work, how about "Paul or John?" or "Han Solo or Indiana Jones?"

    Since my first trip to the UK, our shared culture in all its many permutations has become so much clearer to me.

    We, as you, are raised on stories of Robin Hood and Maid Marian, King Arthur, Knights of the Round Table, The Tower of London, wicked Kings and True, Little Miss Muffet (although most of us are a little unclear as to what curds and whey are), Black Sheep and three bags full of wool, Mary Poppins, Hyde Park, Peter Pan and Wendy and so much more I can't remember it all.

    If we in the US don't understand rhyming slang or referrences to Dr. Who, or Brits don't know who was Spin or who was Marty and which was the cool one, well, those are fairly recent, fairly minor mysteries.

    Think on how much of each other we do get.

    I've read that the Duchess of Devonshire (Debo Mitford), now Dowager, has/had a room at Chatsworth devoted to Elvis Presley, himself born into bone-crushing poverty in Tupelo, Mississippi.

    Debo was so taken by Elvis, his talent, his looks, his voice and stage presence that she dedicated a room in his honour.

    In this she shares an admiration of The King with the young lady who served our tea at the Bayeau Tea Room in Battle, and who told us she had always wanted to go to America to see Graceland, as she'd been in love with Elvis Presley since she was a young girl.

    A duchess and a waitress understand our deep cultural connections.

  7. Iota: "Brownie Points" is an American expression; we used it all the time where I lived. Maybe it's a regional thing.

    Jill: Asking a guy, "Han Solo or Indiana Jones" would provide way too much information ;)

  8. Well put! I can absolutely relate to this missing frame of reference. Sometimes I tell jokes or say little phrases that to a British person would be amusing, but to an American I just look strange or conceited because they're not "in on the joke" as it were. I love meeting fellow Brits in America because I don't have to mentally censor myself and translate what I want to say into "American". And, similarly, I am going home to England on holiday next week, and I will have to make sure I am not speaking too "American" - I will need to censor myself to being very British again. It's like living in-between languages.

  9. Oh yes Limey - the Brits hate it if they think you've "gone American". In my case, it's not so much my accent but the decibel level I have to watch! (But that's yet another post.)

  10. I'm sure this is why it feels so "comfortable" to hang around other expats. Shared frame of reference.

    But yeah, we definitely did have "Brownie points" growing up in the US midwest.

  11. I have no idea what "Nice sweater, Mrs Cleaver" means, but I love it and going to attempt to drop it into any conversation that I have over the next week or so. Starting with a phone call to the in-laws.

  12. Great post and one I totally relate to. I felt like I was living on a different planet when I started working at an Ad agency in Chicago. There were so many 'in' jokes from Seinfeld or other American shows, that just went straight over my head. I was used to mimicking lines from Blackadder or Harry Enfield - and so whilst we all had great senses of humour, our frames of reference were totally unaligned.

    And I always remember my ex being asked very discreetly, and innocently, by a sexy female colleague one day "while no-one else is around do you want to take a quick look at my puppies?" He was so disappointed to be shown pix of her dogs...

  13. Well I just assumed no-one would know what Brownie Points are, since you don't have Brownies here. Don't you just call them "Girl Scouts"? I thought I'd confuse anyone if I used the phrase "Brownie Points", and that they'd assume it was some sort of chocolate confectionery.

    I haven't heard the phrase used, but that's probably because I haven't done anything worthy of brownie points in 2.5 years here!

    Youtube is a great help, I find. I was trying to explain to my kids who the Clangers were (see, you don't necessarily share a frame of reference with people of your own nationality - you have to be the same age bracket too). Youtube provided me with all the Clanger clips I needed.

  14. We actually do have Brownies. Girl Scouts instead of Girl Guides yes, but for whatever reason Brownies are still called the same thing. The age levels are:

    Daisy (5)
    Brownies (6-9)
    Girl Scouts
    - Juniors (9-11)
    - Cadets (11-14)
    - Seniors (14-17)

    Also there's this new thing called Studio 2B for Cadets and Seniors but girls aren't generally referred to 2Bers or anything (probably because people who aren't directly involved with it probably don't know it exists). Best I could tell from my short time working for the girl scouts was that it mainly acted as way to keep girls in the program in their teens.

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  16. Trying again.
    Before I got kicked out of the Brownies (for asking questions about why certain stoopid things were ever done in the first place), we were in Sixes named after fairy types. I was an Imp, needless to say, but we also had Pixies and other sorts. We also only had two levels - Brownies and Scouts. We do have Brownie groups in Chicago although I steered the Queenager in the other direction.

  17. I was a Blue Bird. Do they have those any more?

    I think you hit it one the head. I fit in very well in the UK, been living here on and off since the 90s, but it's the little cultural references that make me stick out (and my accent). I know what most of them are now, but I don't get that feel good "back to childhood" feeling when they are mentioned.

    Sad, a lot of these references have to do with advertising, such as:

    "My baloney has a first name, it's O-S-C-A-R, my baloney has a second name, it's M-E-Y-E-R..." and "Hey Mikey won't try it, he hates everything,"Got a headache honey? On the turnpike with all the kids..." I remember seeing all those falling asleep on the couch watching the Friday night lineup of the Partridge Family, The Brady Bunch, Rockford Files and Angie Dickenson...

  18. Few things are more disconcerting than hearing English words or phrases and not knowing what in the world they mean.

    Example: when buying tickets over the phone for a play in London, I asked the ticket agent if the tix would be held for us at Will Call.

    Several seconds of profound silence on the other end.

    Finally: "Will call?"

    After I explained, she was still a bit unsure about this foreign and mostly unnecessary phrase.

    "The tickets will be waiting for you at the BOX OFFICE."

    Clearly the preferred and correct wording.

    It struck me as singular, though, that a ticket agent for a West End theatre, who must surely have lots and lots of contact with American theatre-goers, wouldn't at least know of Will Call, if not actually referring to it herself.

    It also seemed curious that Will Call is not an English concept, as virtually 99% of American theatre customs and traditons come from the English stage. Guess we went out and did something on our own for once.

  19. "I was a Blue Bird. Do they have those any more?"

    Campfire Girls - now called Campfire USA - has totally restructured itself. Blue Birds are in "Starflight" instead.

  20. Having stumbled on this blog today, I know I've come to the party late, but to chip in an explanation, the three second rule comes from old road safety campaign, "Only a fool breaks the three second rule."
    The message was when on an open road for safety, allow at least three seconds gap between the car ahead and your own.

  21. Thank you Shaun. Always welcome to the party.


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