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.