Sunday, March 28, 2010

Widening The Gap

“Two people separated by a common language”

This oft-used quote has been the basis of this blog from the start, and we like to think we have explored the chasm in a number of ways over the past months. The thing is, once you get past the obvious (elevator = lift, bath is pronounced bahth) you think you pretty much have it sussed. But the separation is, in fact, a bottomless pit, and unless you are a Brit living in the US, or a Yank living in the UK, you can't know how true those words really are.

This week, to satisfy a nostalgic whim, we are looking at some of those things that, even after all this time, still catch us out on a regular basis.

Toni (accents):

When I moved to Chicago the mid-west accent took me by surprise at first, and led to some hilarious mistakes on my part.

For some reason, Bocci ball (a type of boules) was the rage amongst our friends. Because of the twangy accent here, I thought they were all saying “Bacci” and pronounced it thus, in my English accent. It must’ve sounded really weird – this Brit with the strong English accent suddenly producing a Chicago vowel sound right in the middle of a sentence. When I discovered my mistake (several years later) I cringed at the memory, although no one commented at the time.

The other vowel clanger was when we came to buy our first house here and everyone was talking about the Plat of Survey (otherwise known as the survey plan). “Ah” I thought, “I won’t be caught out with that funny vowel sound again”, and proceeded to refer to the “Plot” of survey thinking that was what they were really saying. It wasn’t until we were sitting in the final closing meeting (exchanging contracts) and I saw the damn thing in front of me, written out in full, that I realized my mistake. Again though, no one said anything and I can only assume they were thinking something like “Crazy Brit”.

More recently, my 6 year old, aware of my slightly different accent, has started compensating for it. His second cousin Luca, is now referred to as Luker (with heavy emphasis on the American “R” ending) because he thinks that’s what I’m really saying. For a long time he also thought “pizza” was really “pizzer” again, because of the way we English pronounce “er” endings. I wonder if he goes around telling everyone that my real name is “Antoni-er.”

Mike (words):

Almost everyone, even if they don’t know any expats or watch the British version of The Office, can effuse about the basics: “They call an flashlight a ‘torch’! And a car hood is a ‘bonnet’; isn’t that cute?” And if you have not yet learned about the startling dissimilarity between the British and American use of the word ‘Fanny’ then you deserve whatever social faux pas you perpetrate.

But if you're living in a different culture, once you get past the obvious differences and settle down to the minutia that is daily life, you stop noting every little disparity in the interest of getting on with your day. That doesn't mean they aren't there, it simply means I can't be arsed to point them out:

For example: There are no commercials on British TV, they have adverts. My wife and I don’t go to the movies, we go to the cinema. Going to the theatre may mean going to see a play, or it may mean you are going in for an operation; if you are heading to surgery, however, you are just going to visit your doctor, only it would be you GP.

They do not use scotch tape over here, they use Sellotape (and it’s nowhere near as good). If you wash the dishes you are doing the washing up, and don’t forget your marigolds, which is what they call dishwashing gloves. They have cling film instead of saran wrap and they don’t vacuum, they hoover.

Oddly, a bicycle is called a pushbike to distinguish it from a bike, which is a motorcycle, while we in the States seem unconfused by using bike for both.

You don’t put on your blinker or use your turn signal, you indicate. And if the car in front of you is going too slow and you want to get around it, you overtake. And if you are driving a station wagon, be sure to call it an estate car.

The stuff you throw out is rubbish, not garbage and you put it in a dust bin for the bin men to come and collect. If you have a lot of rubbish, you need a dumpster, which they call a skip.

I could, I am afraid, go on, and on, and on, so I’ll wrap up by advising that, no matter how long you live here (or there) and how bilingual you think you’ve become, you can, and will, continue to be bushwhacked by the language.

Care to share your language experiences?

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Never in America

On 15 March, 2010, This Morning, a popular morning television show in Britain, had two models acting out various sexual positions. We wondered how this would play out in the US.


If the Sex segment on the UK’s This Morning show had happened in the US (at any time of the day or night) executive heads would be rolling like ten pins, advertisers would be cancelling multi-million dollar campaigns and an outraged nation would be uprising. Don’t believe me? Remember the outrage over Janet Jackson’s 2004 boob-flashing “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl? Heck, the offending ta-ta was conveniently adorned with a nipple ring, yet you’d think Ms. Jackson and Jason Timberlake had been doing the biz on national TV. Such was the response from “concerned” citizens that the FCC (Federal Communications Committee) promised a “thorough and swift” investigation of the half-time show and the major TV networks installed five minute delays on live shows just in case anyone thought about pulling a similar stunt.

Read any commentary against sex and nudity and the word “morality” is usually not far behind. Rick Steves, a popular travel TV journalist, writes frequently about the nude spas he has visited in Europe, often wondering out loud why Americans are so hung up about nudity:

“You may not want to bring the more casual European approach to sex and the human body back home with you. And I'm not saying we should all run around naked. But I suspect that children raised in America, where sex is often considered ‘dirty,’ are more likely to have an uncomfortable relationship with sex and their bodies than those in Europe.”, says Steves in one article.

His detractors invariably criticize his morals, as in this insightful response: “Europe has been good to Rick Steves, so it’s no surprise his "standards" in propriety have been relaxed.” Or this dingbat: “I really enjoy Rick's shows on PBS. On the other hand I can do without articles like this insinuating that we are prudes because we still have a little morality left here.”

See what I mean. Why does nudity have to go hand in hand with morality?

Anyhoo, for Americans who prefer not to let it all hang out, there’s a website just for you: Wholesome Wear – offering “swimwear that highlights the face rather than the body”.

I wonder if this will be compulsory wear for all beaches in the US before long?


I think the best illustration of the insouciance* surrounding sex here in the old world is, when I showed the article to my wife, she said, “That’s nothing new, they’ve done that before on Breakfast TV, showing sex positions for older people.” (I just hope they weren’t using Bruce Forsyth and Ann Widdecombe as the models.)

So it would seem, though a smattering of people are pretending to be shocked by this, on the whole, it was taken pretty much in stride.

And, to be fair, there really wasn’t much titillation involved; here’s a sample of the televised demonstration, altered for American audiences according to FCC regulations:

Not exactly something to stir your porridge, is it? And, frankly, I think most people have figured out the “man on top get it over with quick” position on their own by now. If they haven’t, then they are probably the type of people who sit at home shouting at the telly and writing angry letters to the BBC and ITV.

But I digress.

I think this openness about sex and nudity is a good thing (even if coming a little late in my life). For one thing, it allows you to read a newspaper or magazine with pictures of naked people in it and not have everyone else on the subway car assuming you are reading porn.

Imagine taking the number 4 to Bleecker Street and opening the New York Post only to find a huge photo on page three of Mandy, a PA from Flatbush who is very concerned about Obama’s health care reform, orphans in Afghanistan and world hunger, but doesn’t seem to care a fig about putting her baps on public display. You’d likely be tossed off the train and lucky not to be arrested for aggravated public indecency.

Here, the Page Three Girls are legendary. They aren’t scandalous or shocking; they are simply there, part of the fabric of every day life, like the spectre of National Identity Cards, only less hideous.

For those of you in the US who have never seen a Page Three Girl, I offer this, censored, naturally, to comply with FTC, ATF and NSA regulations:

* A heretofore unknown difference between US and UK English, perhaps? My MS Word UK thesaurus claims this words is akin to “rudeness, impertinence and cheek**” My US dictionary, however, says it means “Blithe lack of concern; nonchalance” Be aware that I am using the US-style insouciance. (Post Script: I just looked Insouciance up in the Concise Oxford Dictionary and the definition is similar to the US definition. Maybe it was just Microsoft mistaking Insouciance for Insolence.)

** This is how I know it was the UK spell checker.

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Interview with Lakeland Jo

This week we interview English blogger Lakeland Jo who posts about her life in idyllic Bowness-on-Windermere in the Lake District. Jo has travelled to the USA many times and gives us her impressions:

Where have you been to in the States?
Chicago, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, Orlando, Miami

What were your preconceived notions and how (if at all) were they different from your experience?
All I can say in brief is I expected to love it and I do. When I first started visiting I loved how fabulous the malls were, but UK is catching up fast. I also loved Starbucks but we have that too now! I expected everything to be on a big scale, but I was overwhelmed by the size of everything and how a big distance to us is a small distance to an American.

What do you like most about the States?
I like the attitude to success. It’s ok to be good at stuff, it’s ok to succeed, it’s ok to talk about succeeding and being good at stuff. I think the prevailing attitude is positive and upbeat.

Anything you dislike?
I am not sure dislike is the right word for this, and I can’t say that I am terribly well travelled in the US, but I was surprised that there seems to be such strong cultural similarities across such big distances. There appears to be a much more ‘conservative’ attitude to life than here in Europe from my perspective. Europeans seem much more cosmopolitan and liberal.

I really dislike the health care arrangements in the US. It really frightens me how it works over there. I hope it never gets like that here in the UK. I think the NHS is a diamond. It has flaws and it needs improving, but it is so worth maintaining and investing in. I will fight to protect it all my life. Bottom line- I am alive because of it. In the US I would either be dead, or bankrupt. Not right. It’s the bit of the American dream that doesn’t work for me. I once met a waitress in IHOP. Her teeth had fallen out at the front. She told me she couldn’t afford dental insurance. Folk have to sell houses when they have cancer. Nightmare.

We haven’t had much happiness on US airlines generally- the service is very poor and rude in our experience.

And also son't like the gun culture there.

What do you think the USA could learn from the UK?
See above- the NHS.

I think the British have a fairly international perspective on life- that doesn’t seem to the case in the US.

Portion control on food- so much goes to waste!

And what could the UK learn from the States?
Celebrating success, being proud of our country, attitude to service.

Describe Americans in one sentence (of less than twenty words.)

(I hate to’s a big country!)

Positive, friendly, helpful, patriotic, conservative, extroverted ( in comparison to Brits). There are very few Americans I have met or worked with that I haven’t liked.

Thank you Lakeland Jo.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Blowing Your Own Trumpet

Last week’s discussion touched on the subject of British versus American modesty. We’re talking the “hiding your light under a bushel” type of modesty rather than the no-nudity version by the way.


The general consensus last week seemed to be that Brits don’t openly boast about their accomplishments/gobs of money/clever children, but in my experience neither do Americans. The operative word here is “openly” because both will find a way to let you know of their success, whether it’s driving around in an Aston Martin or wearing their child’s Oxford college scarf. (Here in the USA it’s very common to see car window stickers saying things like “My Child is an Honors Student” or “My child’s at “Really-Hard-to-get-Into College”.)

And as we’ve just seen at the Winter Olympics, there’s absolutely no modesty in American sports. They love a winner and have very little time for the Brit-beloved underdog. I’m used to it now, but Americans will even boo their own teams if they’re not playing as well as expected. It’s bad enough for baseball outfielders to have tens of thousands of people (plus a huge TV audience) waiting for them to catch a high fly-ball, but the knowledge that they’ll be roundly boo-ed if they drop it is, I suppose, added incentive.

One thing Americans do well is accept a compliment. Take the same compliment “Your daughter’s very pretty” and the response is often markedly different on either side of the Pond.

US parent – “Oh thank you”, followed by beaming smile with no attempt to deflect the praise.
UK parent – “Well, obviously not my gene pool”, followed by self-deprecating laugh.

The modesty question is alive and well in the blogosphere too. Just look at some of the “top blogger” web sites – full of widgets, awards and followers, making us mortal bloggers feel like, well, mortal bloggers. For someone like me (ie. trying to make a living out of my writing) I should be boasting and puffing out my feathers all over the place; exaggerating every decent review and providing links to my “many” radio appearances. (Which reminds me Mike, we really need to link to our Radio Five Live debate of last year.) But no. I can’t bring myself to do that.

It would be unseemly.


Popular wisdom holds that self-aggrandizement is as much a part of the American national identity as a Browning 30-06 Springfield and a box of ammo, whereas the British regard bragging as vulgar and tend to downplay their personal accomplishments. But do these accepted stereotypes play out in the real world?

While I would love to pop this stereotype bubble, I am .afraid I can only confirm it.

A guy in my office runs marathons. He trains regularly, runs in local events and, a few times a year, signs up for marathons. Then, on the weekend, he goes off and runs them. What he does not do, however, is come in on Monday morning and say, "Hey, I ran a marathon over the weekend. I finished in XX place" (Really, to my thinking, unless you win, what difference does your place in a marathon race matter—the fact that you finished it instead of collapsing on the road at the 14 mile mark should get you a medal.)

But you see my point. At some time during the day, someone might recall that there was a marathon over the weekend and ask if he ran in it, at which point he would admit he had. And, if asked, he would reveal his ranking.

(For the sake of accuracy I must report that this particular trend is ending as more people in my office begin to take up running. A the last event, three of my colleagues and my colleague's son all raced so there was a decidedly un-British discussion on Monday morning concerning who came in ahead of who. Modestly may be more pronounce on one side of the Pond, but testosterone levels remain the same where ever you go.)

Now compare the modest marathon runner to an old friend who recently tracked me down on Facebook. His opening letter to me managed to work in his yearly salary, which was much bigger than mine (penis metaphor, anyone?). I don't know anyone's yearly salary over here except mine and, in a vague way, my wife's, and, of course, the president of the Royal Bank of Scotland's but that's just because they keep publishing it in the newspapers to shame him for making so much.

"But, how," I hear you asking,, "does this effect you on a personal level, Mike?" So glad you asked:

A writer's life, out of necessity, tends to be boring and self-absorbed, and mine is no exception. So when I am with people, I occasionally would like to talk about something that is important to me, and that might be the fact that I a get up at 5 AM every morning for to bang out as many words as I can before arriving at work.

No one asks about it, so I can't say anything about it. In the States I could easily start a conversation with, "Hey, I just finished the rough draft of my latest novel this morning!" and we'd be off and running. Here, I'd likely get a puzzled look and an unenthusiastic, "Well done you. Have you seen the weather for the weekend?" in return.

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