Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Manner of Speaking

Since moving from England to the United States in the 1990s, I still get a kick from some of the questions and verbal exchanges my accent (British) elicits. Here are some of the best -- or, depending on your point of view, the worst -- encounters that have endeared themselves to me.

Traveling is always guaranteed to produce some good exchanges. One time I stopped for something to eat in rural Iowa. Hearing me order, a trucker walked up and asked me, “You from Canada or something?“ Most definitely something, I thought.

In a Kansas City coffee shop I got talking to a couple of teenage girls and, after a while, decided to introduce myself by shaking hands whereupon one of them took my hand and, bending her knees and slightly bowing her head, curtsied. I was highly amused and told her, “There is no need to curtsey to me!” Perhaps she thought that was the expected etiquette when meeting a Brit.

Bar Talk - In Minneapolis I spoke with a man in a bar who, after learning I was half English and half Welsh, said, “But Wales is just a part of England, right?” Trying to explain the difference, while carefully throwing in the few words of welsh I knew for good measure, he accused me of trying to hoodwink him. Hilarious.

And how could I forget the drunk in a Detroit bar who refused to believe I was not faking my accent. He asked that I show him my “currency” as proof of where I was from. Except he wasn’t quite that polite. Twisted, eh.

The holidays - “Do you guys have Christmas in England?” someone once asked. “Used to. We all recently converted to Islam,” I quipped. Needless to say, I wasn’t too surprised when my explanation was accepted at face value.

Some exchanges just stretch belief. Case in point: I once parked in a downtown Minneapolis parking lot when the attendant, to whom I paid the parking fee, said, “You speak English very well. Where do you come from?"
“England,“ I replied.
A confused look, and then, “So they teach you the language there, huh?”
Apparently, they’ve been teaching it there for some time. I smiled, wound up the window, and drove off.

Perhaps the most bizarre exchange of all took place in a Jacksonvile, Florida, supermarket during a break from a road trip between Miami and Atlanta. Ordering a sandwich at the deli counter, I became conscious of a man nearby staring at me. A look back a few seconds later and his eyes were still fixed on me. After collecting my sandwich I headed toward the checkout only to notice the same man heading my way. By this point I was a little apprehensive so decided to turn into the adjacent isle, stop and pretend to look at something on the shelf, and hope that he’d walk past. But he didn’t. Instead, he stopped inches away, and in an elongated Southern drawl, said, “Excuse me sir, can I say something to you?”
My heart began to pound a little faster as I imagined what he might want. “Sure, say whatever you like,” I replied.
“Cheers, mate!” he boomed, adding, “I’ve always wanted to say that to an Englishman.”
And then he was gone. Just like that.

Being (mis)understood can also present its challenges. At a state park this past summer, having just been on a hike, I asked someone to take a photo of me and my new friend.
“Take one a little closer,” I requested.
“Take our clothes off?” my friend said, a look of complete surprise on her face.
Oh sure, but I hardly know you.

And then there are the really fun encounters. Not long ago, in a Brueggers Bagel shop, I asked, “Can I have a little more cream cheese on that bagel?”
“Honey, with an accent like that you can have as much cream cheese as you like,” replied the woman, smiling.

These are, of course, some of the more memorable (and extreme) encounters. For the most part having the accent I do can be a fun thing and, more often than not, a non-event.


Anonymous said...

Funny stories. But the question is, are Americans as a group more insular and ignorant of the world around us than most people? It sure seems that way. When Rome was the sole superpower, they seemed to have had a greater awareness and understanding of the greater world. Britain too. They may have felt superior to eveyone else, but at least they knew that everyone else existed. Many Americans blithely assume that the rest of the world thinks like we do and would like nothing more than to live the same way. The closest comparison may be Japan before Perry showed up.

Anonymous said...

When it comes to the observance of holidays you forgot to mention an important one. When asked if you celebrate the Fourth of July in England your reply is usually something like, "Of course we celebrate the anniversary of finally getting rid of the colonies."

Christopher said...

Anonymous: You pose a great question. There are people in every country who are unaware of the world around them. I think that Americans get a harder rap than most by virtue of the United States’ enormous influence - be that geopolitical, economic, or entertainment-based. Perhaps when a country is so dominant many people outside that country expect the population of that country to be more aware. And I don’t think that geography helps much in the United States' case. Perhaps the solution lies in the education system - in the U.K. we learned a lot about other countries, but then again we are so close to many of them and fought innumerable wars against them down the centuries. Whether Americans as a group are more insular than most, especially from a historical perspective, is a question we may one day answer, and is one I’d be keen to learn more about.

Christopher said...

Anonymous: Yes, I do make that comment though my tongue is planted firmly in my cheek! I love the Fourth of July!

Sara said...

I love when people ask you where you are from and you replied, dead serious, "Alabama."

Christopher said...


Maybe the Alabama line is wearing thin. In honor of you, perhaps I'll start to tell people I grew up in North Dakota! What do you think?

Anonymous said...

good stories lemon head
keep up the good work!!

JafaBrit's Art said...

I enjoyed reading your blog post. I had the same question about whether we spoke English in England and I was too gobsmacked to respond lol.
cheers from a geordie in Yellow Springs, Ohio

Christopher said...

Jafa: It only happened the once, but I have never forgotten it! Cheers for reading my post.

Anonymous said...

I am commonwealth born, lived in the US for 10 plus years. I would say that I have a colonial accent, its more British than it is American but my diction is a combination of both simply because I assimilated and had to adjust. I think that the level of "ignorance" that we get from some Americans is because, the system is set up as; you are either Black or White or Hispanic. If you are white you have a suburban accent and enjoy certain types of music. If you are black then you live i the hood and listen to rap music. If you are Hispanic you are from Mexico and you have a large family. But because of media and globalization people are realizing that the stereotypes are merely stereotypes and are in no way an indication of who a person really is. Because guess what? We didn't notice it happening but we are all affected by globalization, whether it be through interaction with immigrants, traveling overseas for work or leisure and any other form...So, at the end of the day subtle cultural nuances about you become evident. Seeing that this is what is happening, the education system needs to adjust accordingly, not just at the college level but at early as possible in a child's development. Which then means that the US education system needs to re-asses the K-12 curriculum especially for the less immigrant dense cities that are not New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Washington D.C. etc: Learning Geography is now almost essential. And a new curriculum will actually help resolve a lot of conflict that happens in schools: in particular bullying that targets a child who is evidently attached for being different in a certain way.