A friend sent me a link to the BBC story here about how Americans can’t tell when British are politely calling them idiots.
Clearly, I’m not the first American to have these communication issues.
In 1942, the US War Department realized that most of the thousands of young servicemen they were sending to the UK wouldn’t have a clue what to expect when they arrived. They quickly developed a little booklet called “Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain 1942” to prepare them to be His Majesty’s guests until the allies could “meet Hitler and beat him on his own ground”.
You will quickly discover differences that seem confusing and even wrong. Like driving on the left side of the road and having money based on an “impossible” accounting system, and drinking warm beer.
Along with dire predictions that “The British don’t know how to make a good cup of coffee. You don’t know how to make a good cup of tea. It’s an even swap,” American G.I.s were advised that the British were reserved, tough, and spoke a different language where “…there are many words which have different meanings from the way we use them and many common objects have different names.”
This isn’t exactly news, of course. As Americans, we’ve long suspected that speaking the same language doesn’t mean we’re actually saying the same things.
We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language
–Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost, 1887
After years of study here in the UK, I can usually manage an all-purpose conversation, especially if I have my cover dog along to provide a topic if the weather fails me. As a public service, I’d like offer the following conversation translator. With the greatest respect, of course.
|HOW TO SAY IT IN BRITISH||HOW TO SAY IT IN AMERICAN|
|I’m sorry.||You just bumped my arm and spilled my overpriced caffeinated beverage down my favorite cashmere sweater. I’m going to sue you.|
|I’m sorry.||Then you tried to wipe it up and ended up groping my private bits. I may file charges.|
|I’m sorry.||And now, you cretin, you’ve [smashed into the back of my car/ruined my day/spoken to me in public/wasted perfectly good oxygen]. A guy I know named Vinnie is going to remove your kneecaps.|
|Oh, dear.||The [back of my car/rest of my life/ universe]now looks like an irredeemable disaster and I can’t look away. Vinnie has brothers.|
|Looks like a bit of rain.||Of course it does, you imbecile—this is Scotland. But there’s a gap in the conversation, and by law it must be filled with observations regarding the weather. Speaking of which…|
|I’ve been a bit under the weather.||I had the priest over for the last rites.|
|But not to worry. I’m fine.||Actually, I’m moments away from complete mental and possibly physical collapse.|
|You should come around for dinner.||If I see you at my house, I’m calling the police.|
|Cheers.||Please die painfully.|
In other words, Americans: Don’t expect to get British jokes.
And British? Don’t expect Americans to know you’re joking.