Sunday, October 23, 2011

Americans & Brits - Always Offending Each Other

In the years that we’ve lived “abroad”, we’ve quickly discovered that it’s easy to insult someone without really trying:


Oh yes, even after 21 years here, I still manage to offend people willy nilly.

Take the phrase “Shut Up”. Although a few Americans use it to mean “No way!”, there is no other acceptable version. In the UK I’d have no problem saying “Oh shut up” if someone for example, comes out with a funny, gross exaggeration or something utterly gross. I once accidentally said “Shut up” to one of my kids (I meant to say “Be Quiet” which is almost as bad here). Unfortunately we happened to be in a room full of parents with kids, and they all literally stopped mid-sentence, turned to look at me and gasped in unison.

The other “bad” word here is “stupid.” I once called attention to a woman who was walking on the road, with traffic coming up behind her, headphones on and just asking to be run over. “Look at that stupid woman”, I said to my kids. “She’s going to get hit by a car”. As I said it, another woman walked past my open car window and muttered “Charming” loudly enough for me to hear. You also can’t get away with calling someone a “stupid idiot” either in jest or for real. You might as well use the word “retarded”.

Another “sin" is when I fail to acknowledge any thanks I receive. I often complain that Americans rarely say “Please” but boy do they take “Thank you” seriously, to the point that if you don’t say “You’re welcome”, people you know really well (ie. Cheeky kids) will often say it for you. There’s a crossing guard/lollipop man outside our school every morning. He gets thanked every time he walks someone across the street, and he says “You’re welcome” to every single person. If that were me, I’d have  a little tape recorder in my pocket doing it for me!


The US/UK divide that catches me out more than “Shut up” (I haven’t had any reason to say that word since my children grew up) is the way they use “Please” and “Thank you.”

In the US, “Thank You” is the star.  “Please” is reserved—in my experience—for those occasions when several requests have gone ignored, and it is usually uttered with more than a little sarcasm:

“Will you please clean up your room; this is the third time I’ve asked.  Thank you.”

But here, “Please” takes center stage and “Thank you”—if it appears at all—is a bit player.  Leaving out “Please” is considered rude and, I suppose, thanking someone before they actually do something could be considered a bit presumptuous. 
Therefore, my e-mail communications at work often go something like this:

Colleague to me:  “Will you please send me the specifications for the new widget?”

Me to Colleague:  (Thinking: whoa, what’s up with him?)  “The specification is still missing a few key points.  Could you send me your notes from yesterday’s meeting where we discussed these points?  That would be a big help.  Thanks.”

Colleague: (Thinking: wanker!)  “I compiled my notes and copied them to the document repository.  Please see my e-mail from yesterday afternoon concerning this.”

Me: (Thinking: asshole!)  “I don’t seem to have an e-mail from you about that.  Could you resend it?  Thanks.”

Colleague:  “It’s in the standard location, you stupid Colonial retard!”

Me: “Why don’t you just shut the f*&k up and answer my question, you sanctimonious British ponce!

Okay, so maybe those last two exchanges don’t actually happen, but that’s what we’re thinking.


  1. I went out on a mommy "play date" the other day. As the person that had been invited, I said "thank you so much for inviting me out" more than once (I'm actually embarrassed to say how many times I said it). Never once did I get a "you're welcome". I was just met with silence...and yes, I was a bit put off.

    Obviously I'm the Yank living in the UK.

  2. Yes over hear *Please* is very important but I do try & get my grandchildren to say *thank you * also. I had an auntie when I was a child (long since departed) but she always said *Please and thank you* when we forgot these courtesies with our requests for things.
    It has stuck in my head!
    I didn't think *Be quiet* was so offensive!
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  3. But you didn't mention the strangest overuse of "please" in the UK, which is the cries of "Big Issue, Big Issue Please" on the street corner. I still have no idea what the grammatical origins of that phrase could even be!

  4. Saying if some will please do something is a form of exasperation here in the Netherlands too. You can thank someone ahead of time providing you word it correctly. Showing exaggerated gratefulness is not appreciated. It makes the giver feel uncomfortable. One well meant thank you is enough.

  5. There's a really big difference between "be quiet" and "shut up" in American English when talking to kids. There's nothing at all rude/inappropriate/"bad parenting" about telling a child to "be quiet" when they're somewhere they really ought to be quiet or they're being loud and obnoxious. That is, in fact, the preferred and widespread form.

    If a parent is negative attention from other adults when s/he tells their kid to be quiet, it probably has a lot more to do with the tone and circumstances than the phrase.

  6. I have a UK-bred friend who says "please" after every item he orders in a restaurant; I was raised to say "thank you" after giving the entire order. He thinks I'm rude (and has made a fuss when we're out), but I've never heard anyone "please" as much as he does!

  7. Anon - I get the difference between the two, and know that I shouldn't have said "Shut up" - it just came out. However, the reaction to it was still ten times more outraged/shocked than if I'd said it in England. It was definitely seen as child abuse.
    Lazygal - you should hear me in Subway trying to order a sandwich. Far too many questions, and saying "please" after every answer sounds ridiculous.

  8. I always notice at the deli counter here how people don't say please. They would just ask something such as 'can I get a half pound of salami?'. Whereas I always preface it with 'Please can I have' (and get strange looks from the mainly Hispanic people serving, who just expect me to say what everyone else does). I've definitely learnt to say 'you're welcome' now - it's much more like the Italian 'prego' or Spanish 'de nada' here.

  9. NFAH, I think it's an abbreviation of "Would you buy a copy of the Big Issue, please?" in recognition that it's not just a newspaper, but an attempt to get a homeless person an income and a way off the streets. That's mu guess, but I just don't know.

    We once made a waitress giggle, and when we asked why, she said "you're just so very polite... you're the most polite people I've ever served... you don't need to keep saying please and thank you!"

  10. Also, in the UK, you can definitely use "Please" to mean "OK, that's it I've had enough". It's all in the intonation - you have to give it a bigger "Z" sound at the end and stretch it out a bit.

  11. As they say, 'two countries separated by a common language.' So much to learn!

  12. What a great post!

    Toni: That's interesting; I actually say "shut up" in jest rather often, and while "stupid" does have very negative connotations it finds its way into our circles as well. Maybe location within the U.S. has something to do with this as well!

    Mike: Don't you just make me giggle! That would be so awkward for me, I'm *always* saying thank you, but with a liberal sprinkling of please-es.

  13. Thanks, Abby (see, I did it again!)

  14. The "please" thing is probably regional in the States although I've lived in the south and the mid-west, where it is implied more often than it is said. However, the funny thing is that I've had this conversation with quite a few Americans who insist they always say please and then within ten minutes will turn round to someone and say "Do you have the time?" or "Would you pass the ketchup?" with not a whiff of a please.
    As I often say to Brits though, we shouldn't get our knickers in such a twist about it, because the absence of "please" in many circumstances just isn't considered as rude here.

  15. Ha! Very funny! I'm relieved that you use the stupid word Toni and I love Mike's exchange with his colleague!
    Pig x

  16. Ha ha! Love this post! Personally, I use shut-up (rarely, but there are those occasions!), thank you (always), please (always), and stupid (frequently, especially in Los Angeles traffic). I’m so cosmopolitan!

  17. who insist they always say please and then within ten minutes will turn round to someone and say "Do you have the time?" or "Would you pass the ketchup?" with not a whiff of a please.

    Well, using the subjunctive is like saying please in that it's polite. "Would you pass the ketchup" is definitely better than "Please pass the ketchup" or "Pass the ketchup please", where it sounds like you made a demand and then tacked a please on it to be nice. "Would you please pass the ketchup" may be more polite... but there can be such a thing as too much of a good thing.

  18. I wonder what would happen if I said "Would you please shut up, thank you!" to my kids. Would the world explode?

  19. Fascinating. No offense to my British friends (pardon my mouth) but when the phrase 'shut up' is uttered in the United States, that two-word phrase does not always mean 'be quiet,' but also 'no way,' 'unbelievabe,' etc. Self-explanatory, eh?


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