Pardon my English

So, I’m 18 months into my US jaunt, and I think I’m doing pretty well. Americans no longer sound so American. I ask for the check and I take out the trash. I get the whole ‘American Dream’ psyche, the work ethic, the patriotism.

I’ve experienced the culture in San Francisco, but also met enough people and been to enough places to know this isn’t typical – that this country is huge, and what people in LA think is not the same as people in Chicago. And I don’t often misunderstand words or phrases. It helps that the language is so literal. Sidewalk: it’s at the side, and you walk on it. Traffic circle: a circle the traffic goes around.

But despite feeling both worldly and settled, I am reminded that English is not as universal as I thought.

Lost in translation

My American colleague pointed out that at least once a week one of us Brits in the office will say something she doesn’t immediately understand. In context, it’s easy enough to work out. But it’s a good reminder that what I think is perfectly clear English is not always the case.

A few notable failures: ‘thrown the cat among the pigeons’ fell completely flat in a workshop (our hosts tried to teach us the difference between ‘y’all’ and ‘y’alls’ in response). ‘Teaching Grandma to suck eggs’ and ‘going around the houses’ also didn’t work; neither did ‘bug bear’.

In return, I’ve had to wrap my head around ‘bait and switch’, ‘fanny pack’ and ‘period’ (as in, full stop).

Learning curve

Day to day this means being aware of my different starting point. Mostly, this is a good thing. In qualitative research it means probing to get to an underlying belief, not the top of mind throwaway phrase. In quant, an American colleague will Americanize anything I’ve missed (customized, not bespoke; week of, not week commencing) – but that’s just good practice anyway. And in analysis, it adds a fresh viewpoint to challenge the data.

In return for a little extra effort to communicate, I get all the benefits of experiencing a different culture. I’ve found my new friends, neighbors and clients to be straight-talking – which makes things easy. And they’re so willing to put themselves out for you. It’s encouraged me to move out of my comfort zone and say yes to new things, to reciprocate their effort.

I know how lucky I am to be here and I’m grateful to keep learning about my adopted home. I’m unlikely to pick up an American twang anytime soon (my mum would kill me), but as my American colleagues would say, I’ve got skin in the game.

I still can’t bring myself to say Monterey without pronouncing the ‘t’ though, and I’m constantly writing my date of birth back to front. But maybe give it another six months.

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