Some years ago my British friend Christine came to visit. I introduced her to several of my friends; we had girls’ lunches. Generally a good time was had by all, but she finally confessed she thought we Americans were rude. This is not what one expects to hear from one’s houseguest, and certainly not in front of a group of one’s friends at a nice restaurant.
“For example,” she said, “we [English] would never speak to a waiter the way you just did.”
Since I pride myself on being polite to servers, I was dumbfounded. But I’d said, “I’ll have the roast beef” during the ordering process, while Christine noted, “We would say, ‘May I please have the roast beef?’” Aha. She went on to say that American visitors in England come across as rude to the natives, precisely because of these types of details.
If that’s the case, we may be doomed, kids. Sure, there are some crass, loud-mouthed Yanks cruising the Continent, but the rest of us might also offend, no matter how well-intentioned we are.
No amount of my explaining to Christine the implicit contract between server and served—he wants me to tell him what I want; neither of us feels I should have to inquire as to whether it would be possible for me to have the meal—would satisfy her. We even asked the waiter upon his return if he’d been offended. (Nope.)
It’s just a cultural thing. In fairness, the Irishman had noticed American restaurant customs, too, but he quickly realized (repeat after me) it’s just a cultural thing. So I had to chuckle when I read this op-ed article in the BBC News Magazine by Matthew Engel.
English … [has] become the natural medium of global communication. This is the version of English sometimes known as “Globish.” To use it requires only a rudimentary knowledge of grammar and, so it is said, a vocabulary of a mere 1,500 words. But what the world is speaking—even on levels more sophisticated than basic Globish—is not necessarily our English. According to the Oxford Guide to World English, “American English has a global role at the beginning of the 21st century comparable to that of British English at the start of the 20th.” The alarming part is that this is starting to show in the language we speak in Britain. (Emphasis mine.)
To be sure, Engel goes on to say it’s not the Americanisms so much as the loss of his English cultural heritage that he finds upsetting:
As an ex-American resident, I remain a big fan of baseball. But I sit over here and listen to people who know nothing of the games talk about ideas coming out of “left field.” They speak about “three strikes and you’re out” or “stepping up to the plate” without the foggiest idea what these phrases mean. I think the country has started to lose its own sense of itself. … Britain is a very distinct country from the US. Not better, not worse, different. And long live that difference. That means maintaining the integrity of our own gloriously nuanced, subtle and supple version—the original version—of the English language. (Emphasis mine, again.)
It sounds good. (I won’t point out that we would say, “… who know nothing of the game”—not games plural. It’s just a cultural thing. We say math, Brits say maths. OK!) Nonetheless I was a little surprised by some of Engel’s other statements. When he says, “Americans imported English wholesale, forged it to meet their own needs, then exported their own words back across the Atlantic,” he’s forgetting the folks who came to the North American continent lo these many years ago were predominantly English. Who spoke, um, English. (We’ve talked about this before.) It was that whole taxation-without-representation thing that made loyal Englishmen begin to think of themselves as Americans.
Our Matt goes on to say, “As our computers talk to us in American, I keep having to agree to a license spelt with an s. I am invited to print something in color without the u. I am told ‘you ghat mail.’ It is, of course, always e-mail—never our own more natural usage, e-post.” To which I can only respond, “Seriously, dude? I can choose which language/spelling to use on my computer: American, British, even Pirate. I am a little concerned that you’re still using an AOL e-mail account, but fifteen years ago when I used AOL it did, in fact, use correct grammar (‘you’ve got mail’). And what makes post any more ‘natural’ than mail?”
Engel’s column struck a nerve among his fellows. A week after it appeared, the BBC ran a list of fifty American phrases that most annoyed its readers. Looking over it I don’t know whether to laugh (“The one that always gets me is the American need to use the word bi-weekly when fortnightly would suffice just fine”) or cry (“I caught myself saying shopping cart instead of shopping trolley today and was thoroughly disgusted with myself”).
OK, mostly I laugh. :) It’s just a cultural thing! Vive la différence, y’all. (And happy Independence Day.)
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”