Wednesday, February 14, 2007

It's not what you say, it's how you say it

I think that one of the best things that happens when you learn a foreign language, is that you also glean a better understanding of your own native tongue. In addition to finally understanding what a noun, verb, and adjective are, you know how to use them correctly. You can identify the subject and object of any sentence, and you can be all smug and drop words like split-infinitive; subjuctive; and conjungation in a sentence - and you know what you're talking about.

So it has been a real treat for me to discover Kate Fox's book, Watching the English - The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour - that Kate thoughtfully gave to me when we were in Boston last week. I'm only a few chapters into it, but already I'm laughing and cringing all at the same time. Fox is a socio-anthropologist but her book is at once scientific and comedic. She is English herself, and pokes fun at her countrymen in the same good-natured way that the Aussies do. Indeed she comments that the social mores and customs explored in her book will easily strike a chord with Australians. If you haven't seen the book or heard of it before (as I hadn't), you must check it out. You don't need to be a scientist, language student, or even English to enjoy the book. I actually think the book pokes just enough fun at English customs to be highly amusing to a non-English person.

Here in the States, I think I've done a pretty good job of adapting to my new environment. Language was of course one of the first cultural barriers I had to address when I arrived. You might remember that 'tap' became 'faucet'; 'jumper' turned to 'sweater' and 'coffee' became 'Starbucks Venti Nonfat Latte'. But two phone calls at work recently have reminded me that you can take the girl out of Australia, but you can't take Australia out of the girl (well, not all of it anyway).

In the first instance, I inadvertently told an American caller that my colleague he had asked for had just 'jumped on the phone'. Silence followed. I knew what was coming. "How do you jump on the phone exactly?" he enquired, in his meant-to-be-amusing-but-came-across-as-obnoxious way. I told him that it was a unique Australian saying, and I'm sure he knew that. Again with the silence. So I transferred him.

Then today a lady phoned and started telling me a long and involved story about an aspect of her private life that related to the reason she was calling. I listened politely and when she paused, I filled the silence with "Right...." to encourage her to continue. She of course assumed that by saying "right", I was familiar with her story, and therefore telling her that I'd heard enough. So she said "are you reading my mind?". In disbelief, I simply declared in the negative. Again with the silence (see the pattern?). So in the manner of my English brethren, I felt compelled to make excuses for myself and I let her in on the Aussie cultural secret that saying "Right," was a shortened version for "Right, I see, please tell me more of your fascinating story" - or at least I said something like that.

These are two extreme examples of course. And to be fair, the reason they irritated me is because these callers implied that letting an accidental Aussie-ism slip out was distasteful and they called me out on it. They knew what I meant for heaven's sakes, and yet they couldn't help themselves. They're just fortunate that I'm still too polite to take them to task. After all, name-calling and mud-slinging is just so uncouth....and so, what's that word? Un-English.


Jammin' Jemma said...

You could have told that lady "No ma'am I am not reading your mind because like your story, there is nothing in it! You are the weakest link, goodbye."

Yeah, that would have "learnt" her!

batreg said...

Ha Jemma - love it! Too Aussie for her though she wouldn't have got it.

The tribe has spoken!

Parisienne said...

Damn. I just wrote a really long and interesting comment and lost it. So now you get the short version. Me, sucker for compliments. Had to comment on recent posts. Know that completely slack on own blog. Kate Fox is great. Buy book. Good work Reg on recent re-blogging. Obligatory last sentence some how promising to make more effort in future. Sign off. (copy text before next step...)