When travelling abroad, one expects there will be language barriers. However it never dawned upon me that my first hurdle would be, of all places, England.
It seems that even though I am a native speaker of English, I in fact, do not speak English. My case in point; conversations with the British, in what I assumed was a shared language, can go quite wrong and leave the locals either smiling or laughing.
It turns out that saying “good morning” to end a conversation is quite inappropriate in England. Once after a conversation with the local post lady I bid farewell to her with a cheery, “Good morning!”
Afterwards my wife Louise asked me, “Why did you tell her to f-off?”
She explained that good morning was dismissive, even rude, and that perhaps I should avoid using it ever again. Oops. The post lady had really been very kind and I’d been rude. We wondered if the mail would ever again arrive at the house.
Housesitting and the local vernacular
Louise and I are travelling the world and stretching our dollar by doing some house and pet sitting for “holiday-makers” (people on vacation). The briefings on what need be done during the house sit are not without challenges.
“Do you have a sprinkler?” I enquire of one of the homeowners we are house sitting for.
“Yes, it’s up the back.”
While silence roared, I realized that I’d no idea what she meant.
“What do you mean by up the back?” I inquired.
She smiled and patiently explained that at the very back of the garden, next to the hose, is a sprinkler which she is only too happy to show me. Off we go “up the back” where I’m introduced to the sprinkler and a variety of vegetables which I believe, quite incorrectly, I am familiar with.
She provides a tour of her fabulous vegetable and flower garden and mentions the need to soon harvest the aubergines and courgettes to which I quietly say – thanks to the visual clues.
“Ah, eggplant and zucchini.”
She smiles, nods and clearly thinks that I’m an idiot. However, she is possessed with exceptional diplomatic skill and remarks that it’s interesting how different cultures name things differently. Eggplant she declares, is a “much more exciting name”. Quintessential British diplomacy. Upon concluding our little tour, she offered “scrumpy sandies”. Even her 7-year old recognizes that I have no clue what this means and says,
“She wants to know if you’d like a sandwich.”
Are you alright?
This language barrier between native English speakers can be embarrassing for everyone. Once, while fueling the car, the petrol attendant asked me,
“Are you alright?”
I replied “Yes.”
The odd expression upon her face indicates that she believes I am not “alright”. I learn from Louise that the question “Are you alright” is the Brits way of asking: “How are you?” I am “Yes”.
The attendant quickly realizes that I’m not local and changes her question.
“Do you need any help?” she asks.
Of course, I say no; however, I make the near-fatal mistake of asking if they sell bottled water. This is where we begin to have greater problems.
Many North American’s, when speaking words with the double “t” enunciate them as the letter “d”; thus, bottled water becomes “boddled wadder”. The question;
“Do you sell boddled wadder?” is met with a patronizing smile.
“Where in America are you from?”, she asks.
“I’m Canadian.” I reply.
This is the point where social awkwardness gets a solid head of steam. The revelation of my nationality brings the conversation to a crashing halt. I have caused embarrassment with my desire to be not American. Oh but for the want of proper enunciation.
Interestingly, the Brits, when faced with this situation say either “It had to be one or the other.” or “I’ve got a friend living in Saskatoon.”
The other “go to” response for many Brits is to proclaim,
“Oh Canada, I really want to travel there. It’s just so lovely.”
I guess that they’ve seen pictures of the Rocky Mountains?
Sorry, I’m Canadian
My strategy to minimize these often repeated socially awkward moments is to adopt the habit of starting most dialogues with “I’m Canadian” which, retrospectively, is like apologizing in advance for, well, everything.
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