Home Register Members Articles Events Message Board Contact Us

Vicki Hollett


View Profile

Learning to speak ’merican

Vicki Hollett is a British freelance author and teacher. Married to an American she lives in Philadelphia. Here she explains how conflicting cultural expectations can cause confusion even between native speakers of English.

I’m British but I’ve been living in the US for about eight years and learning to speak ’merican. My friends at work say I’ve now reached intermediate. Yay! So it’s time to start sharing what I’ve learnt, and perhaps American [1] readers can put me right if I get things wrong.
Ask an American what the rules of baseball are and they’ll begin ‘Oh, it’s really very simple…’ Then they’ll give you some of the most complex instructions you’ve ever heard. Ask a Brit the rules of cricket and they’ll start with ‘Oh, it’s rather complicated I’m afraid…’ Then they’ll launch into rules of equal complexity. Both are being polite and friendly in their different ways: the American aiming to include and the Brit apologising for imposition. It’s this structuring of the discourse that has been my biggest learning challenge. For my thoughts to be well received in the UK and US, I have to frame them differently.

It was brought home to me when Oxford University Press brought out a new edition of Business Objectives recently. They wanted a more transatlantic variety of English, so most of the texts needed updating and Americanizing. I found myself making changes like these:

British American
Do you fancy another drink? Do you want another drink?
Right then Okay
Very good indeedReally good, thanks

I found I was very happy to ditch Britishisms. If distracting images of John Cleese spring to American minds when Brits say things like ‘Right then’, a more universal ‘Okay’ seems like a better model.

British American
When would be convenient for you? What time is good for you?
Can you make 4.30?How does 4:30 look?
Yes, that suits me.Yes, that works for me.

I also liked dropping some formal vocabulary. In a world where English is becoming a work-a-day tool for so many people, more informal language seems more useful.

British American
I’m afraid there’s a problem with our orderThere’s a problem with our order
Sorry to be a nuisance I’m sorry about that
I don’t know how that happened Thank you for being so flexible

Notice the way ‘sorry’ becomes ‘thank you’ - so a show of concern about imposing becomes a show of appreciation. This is a rather crude description, but in the re-writes, where people had been saying ‘sorry, sorry, sorry’ in British English conversations, they now began saying ‘thank you, thank you, thank you.’ The language was inextricably interwoven with the culture.

Generally speaking American English employs more positive politeness. Being considerate and courteous involves including people and showing approval with warmth and friendliness. The stereotype of the garrulous American who gives you a run down of their entire life history within five minutes of meeting them is rooted in this. It’s just not polite to hold back. You’ve got to share and be open.
Meanwhile British English employs more negative politeness. Being considerate and courteous involves not imposing or intruding on people. The stereotype of the aloof, standoffish and reserved Brit is rooted in this. It’s polite to leave people alone so they can go about their business without your getting in their way.
I’m using the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ here in a technical sense. [2] It’s not that American politeness is good and British politeness is bad. They’re just different, like electric currents can be termed positive or negative without being better or worse than one another. Both positive and negative politeness is important in both cultures (and indeed all cultures). But we’re looking at a difference in weighting here.

Indirectness is an interesting feature of politeness. Like most people, I don’t always say what I mean. So for example, I might say, ‘Do you have a pen in your bag?’ when really I mean ‘I want a pen’. And people use indirect requests like this all the time.

Those biscuits look nice (Give me one)
Is anybody else here feeling hot? (I’m hot. Open the window)
Have you finished with that newspaper? (I want to read it)
Are you going past a post box on your way home? (I have a letter I want you to post)
Are you busy? (Help!)

George Lakoff pointed out that the ambiguity in requests like these has social benefits. If I can get what I want because you want to give it to me, then life will be more pleasant for us both. And if I haven’t gone on the record with a request, then it’s easier for me to rescind or modify it later. So I might say ‘Those biscuits look nice’ hoping you’ll offer me one. But then if you say ‘Yes, I bought them for my kids’ school’, I can say ‘Oh how old are your children now?’ and we can pretend I wasn’t asking.

Now people often say Americans are very direct, but I’m not sure how true that is. An American would say cookies instead of biscuits and mail box instead of post box, but they seem just as likely as me to make requests in this roundabout fashion. In my experience, they’re just like Brits when it comes to saying what they mean directly. In short, they don’t.

I’ve found that some polite modal expressions are used rather differently in the two varieties though. When I get into a cab here and ask the driver ‘Could you possibly take us to Independence Hall?’ my friends say, ‘Well of course he could Vicki. Otherwise we wouldn’t be getting into the cab’. [3]So Americans seem to be more direct than me there. But take another example. When my American husband has cooked my dinner he might ask ‘Would you like to clean up?’ ‘No thanks’ seems a perfectly logical answer to me. If he’d said ‘Would you clean up?’, the request would have been clearer to me, so who’s being more direct here?
But the need to make constant apologies is certainly absent in American English. In fact it seems to be a peculiarly British trait. The anthropologist Kate Fox [4] conducted some entertaining experiments on the English ‘sorry’ reflex. She went round bumping into passersby in busy crowded places like train stations and shopping centres to see how many people would say sorry. Even though the collision was clearly her fault, about 80% of English people said ‘Sorry’. Then she tried it on Americans, French, Belgians, Italians, Russians, Polish, Lebanese, Spanish, Japanese, Australians and Scandinavians. Most said ‘Careful’ or ‘Watch out’ and many were very nice about it and held out a steadying hand. But only the Japanese (another negative politeness culture) came close to saying ‘Sorry’. She claims they were frustratingly difficult to experiment on though, because they were terribly good at jumping out of the way.

A lot of Asian cultures emphasise negative politeness which might be why I felt rather comfortable when I lived in Japan. I’ve been more culture shocked living in the States. Of course people gave me a lot of slack in Japan and I expected things to be very different. In the States I start imagining the rules of engagement will be the same, so I wind up in trouble more often.

Giving and receiving compliments has been very tricky. They’re frequently used as an invitation to talk here, rather like ‘Nice day today, isn’t it?’ might be used in the UK. And the responses tend to focus on agreement rather than modesty. [5]. This was identified by Chen [6] in some lovely research she did into the different ways Americans and Chinese respond to compliments. My favourite Chinese example (translated) went something like:

A: Wow Zhang! You’re looking good
B: No, I’m very old and wrinkled.

Zhang’s response simply wouldn’t cut it over here.

I’m still a long way from mastering compliments myself, but here’s the advice I give my students: When an American pays you a compliment, don’t hesitate. Get in quick and say thank you in a very positive, upbeat sounding way. For goodness sake don’t show any signs of disagreement or it really screws things up. The American won’t know how to continue or they’ll feel compelled to pile more compliments onto you which you’ll feel compelled to deny and it will all get horribly embarrassing. So if they say you’re looking good, thank them and say you think you’re looking good too. And perhaps add that you really like their hairstyle/hat/socks/smile/dental work, or whatever seems appropriate. Remember that in ’merican this ritual simply means you’re happy for the conversation to continue.

Of course we don’t have the same ritual in the UK. Paying a compliment in negative politeness cultures is different because it could be a bit of an imposition. The person might think ‘What right have you got to make a judgment about me?’ Or they might feel obliged to pay you one back, so it could suggest you were fishing for a compliment yourself. And in the UK, we’re very fond of understatement, so too much earnest and vocal enthusiasm could signal sarcasm.

Incidentally sarcasm seems to have a different meaning in the US which I don’t fully understand. In the UK the word ‘sarcasm’ might carry negative connotations, or it might not. Here it always carries negative connotations and they seem to be very bad. The act of sarcasm is severely frowned upon. At least, that’s what Americans tell me. But at the same time, I frequently hear them expressing disagreement or disbelief with expressions like ‘Yeah, right!’ with no anger or insult implied or taken. So it’s all a bit confusing really. I wonder if in ’merican the term is applied to a broader variety of negative statements that wouldn’t be sarcastic at all in the British sense.

So it’s clearly going to take me many more years to master ‘merican and I’d better sign off now and go study. But let me just say a couple of things in parting. Firstly, I do hope you don’t feel that this has been a waste of your time and I’m sorry if I went on a bit. And secondly, it’s been a pleasure and a privilege to write this, and thank you all so much for hanging on in here till the end.

© Vicki Hollett , June 2007