Conversations with Americans Pt.6 (They’re not as dumb as you look)

brit duckWe’ve been getting out and about recently, saying yes to invitations. Being sociable and meeting new people.

I’m rusty with this; normally our social life is dominated by family, and it feels strange to spend time with people I’m not related to. Complete strangers, in fact, that I’m required to play nice with.

My biography will not have a chapter titled, “He was great at making friends.”. I might be the shyest person you know, and America isn’t sure what to make of ‘shy’. A lot of the time, America just leaves ‘shy’ alone.

For work I’m better (because otherwise no one will pay me). And it’s easier to be professionally engaged with people. At least it’s easier for me.

So perhaps I should pretend I’m at work all the time (that’s probably good advice for a few other things).

Anyway, I got a treat the other day, attending a party where I was feeling particularly shy. Just listening, it was nice to hear the conversation topics that I regularly advise my students to stick to when meeting Americans for the first time.

It was equally rewarding to sit back and listen as a British person (not me, and yes, two British men at a Nashville party is at least 1 too many) proceed to break all the rules.

He didn’t talk about religion. That’s the one American social taboo he didn’t break. Everything else was up for grabs, and he grabbed them, he beat the hell out of them. (I think the only reason he didn’t tackle religion is because British people are rarely interested in the subject. We’re not evangelical, we just don’t care all that much. In my British experience, talking about faith, or even just telling people that you go to church, was close to telling someone you still believed in the tooth fairy.

(It’s different in Tennessee.)

For the record, I go out of my way to avoid British people here. Partly because there’s the danger you get way too close before realizing the only things you have in common is shared TV shows from your childhood – and this is not nearly enough) and partly because I don’t want to hear them whine. And of course, what if they’re adjusting better than me? All British men I know who moved here have a baby (well, their wives do and they light cigars). I don’t have the baby. I don’t have the Facebook baby profile photo and I also don’t have the photo of me wearing a British club football shirt and drinking beer, either. I wasn’t British enough when I was there, there’s no chance I can match the stereotype now that I’ve moved.

Anyway, I didn’t have to worry about the latter with this guy. I’ve never heard someone sound more British on American soil.

He’s been in the United States for three years, longer than me. But it sounds as though he just stepped off the plane.

His accent is one thing; Americans generally can’t tell the difference between the variety of British accents (A  work colleague recently heard an interview with David Tennant on NPR and was delighted to recognize that Mr. Tennant sounded just like me.  I sound nothing like David Tennant. I wish I did, he sounds fantastic and fantastically Scottish, but I don’t) or between British and Australian for that matter. Americans try to tease me by “sounding British” – kids are good at this, and American kids using a British accent tickles me, but American adults sound like they’re auditioning for an Outback Steakhouse commercial.

But how can this guy live here for three years and pronounce Home Depot (America’s answer to B&Q, with the same orange livery) in a British way. It’s Dee-pot, not Deh-pot. When he did this (at the beginning of an anecdote that was so close to something I’d try to get away with on this blog that I can’t give the details) I blinked in surprise; surely they’ll correct him.

But they didn’t, and now I wonder if the American guests were thinking, well he’s British, maybe we’re all saying it wrong.

Our British guy held his infant son on his lap and said the following:

“America’s great as long as you’re not dying under a bridge.”

“I hear George Zimmerman almost shot his wife.” + “It’s a shame because the case has put back American race relations 30 years.” + “You’ve got a black President and you’re about to have your first woman President.”

Our British friend, he’s spouting off about the most contentious, divisive court case since OJ Simpson and he’s using the same conversational style heard in British pubs; it’s antagonistic, it’s dickish. And when no one takes the bait, it makes for the strangest dialogue. His barbs are met with almost doe-like responses.

British guy, sneering, to the man seated next to him: “Do you support football?”

American guy, bewildered: “You mean, am I in favor?”

It was poetic mis-communication and made me feel like a bilingual God in comparison.

“I joined the Democrat party.” + “I go to Drinking Liberally. (Livingliberally, wonderfully, is an organization promoting the idea that people who agree with each other get together in bars and talk about politics – for once the British got there ahead of you).

He’s saying these things. About politics, healthcare, guns. He doesn’t get to abortion (maybe he did, I couldn’t stay on him all night). And I think he got away with all of this because he’s British.

It wasn’t the baby on his lap. A baby can only get you so far. An American with a baby making these comments would be called out as a moron, or perhaps giving a cold glass of water. But this is just what Brits do. Well, what the tourists do.

Do I do any of  this? I really don’t mean to, and not with people I’ve just met. (And now that I think about it, excuse the blush. Looking back, I’ve done it. But not on the first date. Have I?)

I understood something important at this party. British people are often insensitive, snobbish pricks when speaking to Americans.

No, I’m kidding. I’ve known that for a long time.

But I did learn that British people are often insensitive, snobbish pricks when speaking to Americans and they’re forgiven. Because they’re British. We’re meant to behave this way. It’s the norm. We’re not meant to fit in, we’re there to be awkward, and rude. British Guy sounded like he was in a pub, fishing for a pub argument. Trouble was, no one knows how to have that kind of conversation here, so they just tried to respond in American.

British guy: “I watched a game of football and it was embarrassing because I actually quite liked it.”

American woman: “It sounds like you’re a little ashamed of enjoying things here.” See what she did? She addressed his statement head-on, she treated it like a sincere comment.

British people here, they can carry that attitude of “Let me tell you what’s wrong with you, let me tell you what’s so broken here.” And it’s okay. I think all Americans are clear that too many people get shot here, that too many people have to work slave labor jobs and still can’t get by. They just have different ideas about how to solve these issues (no guns vs. guns for “good guys”, higher minimum wage vs. work harder ya lazy bum).

In this set-up if a British man moves to America and 5 years later, you can’t tell him apart from the natives, then he’s done something wrong, he’s lost his way. So perhaps my efforts at toning my Brit down has been for nothing.

Ah, I don’t know. I’m still going for an exotic blend of Brit and American, I’m still trying for hybrid. I can’t ditch the 40 years before I got here, but I’m not going to go into Kroger and ask where the Ribena is, either.  (Besides, the yanks hate blackcurrant, everyone knows that).

Conversations with Americans Pt.4 (The Sweetest Taboo)

Chick-Fil-A's signature chicken sandwich

Image via Wikipedia

Occasionally I spend my time teaching people marginally less “American” than myself about what qualifies as taboo conversation topics here in the United States.

Money, sex, politics and religion. Unmentionable, unbearable, to openly discuss the things that drive this country.

No, that’s not true. We can still talk about food, television and cars. We can watch celebrities prepare food on the Food Network and then drive somewhere to eat food. And while you’re there, you can have the “You know there’s an Applebee’s where the IHOP used to be? Across from Steak ‘n’ Shake?” conversation.

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