British vs American – Divided by a common language
British vs American – Divided by a common language
Image by brizzle born and bred
Two nations divided by a common language
Americans aren’t offhand, they just want to get down to business. Try not to get offended.
Oscar Wilde claimed that "the Americans and the British are identical in all respects except, of course, their language" while around the same time Henry Sweet predicted that within 100 years American and British English would be mutually unintelligible.
Which is worrying when you consider that currently around 4.5m US business people work in European companies and about the same number of Europeans are employed by American companies. How on earth do they communicate with their colleagues?
Often with great difficulty, claims Allyson Stewart-Allen, an American marketing consultant who was sent over to London by PA Consultancy Group two decades ago, learnt the language and has stayed on ever since. When she arrived she admits she had problems.
"I didn’t know whether being pear-shaped was good or bad, what a damp squib was or if being knackered was faintly improper. But being an outsider meant that I could ask questions which nobody else dared raise. In a first meeting over here it’s considered totally inappropriate to mention money, but I could act the naïve American and ask about the budget. It was met with nervous laughter but I usually got an answer."
There are numerous pitfalls for the unsuspecting Brit who thinks English is universally understood wherever it is spoken.
In the US you can grow a beard or a tomato but not a company, and slating a meeting means that you schedule, not disparage it. Thus a headline ”Third Harry Potter film slated” can mean good on one side of the Atlantic and bad on the other.
If you’re asked whether you want hot milk in your coffee, "I don’t care" in New York is the same as "I don’t mind" in London, but reverse the response and you’ll get a reputation for surliness or indecision. This chasm of misunderstanding reflects the different cultures and history that affects business between the two countries.
For Americans, time is money and the transaction comes first, while building relationships are a long way behind. Go into a meeting and the British want to spend some time settling in, asking about your journey and offering coffee. Americans ignore the pleasantries and throw themselves into the business.
Allyson Stewart-Allen claims this sense of urgency is deep in the American psyche, going back to the early settlers.
In the 1800s publicity for the Manifest Destiny trains urged ordinary Americans to "Claim as much land as you can, as fast as you can".
She explains: "When our ancestors travelled across the country in their covered wagons they knew that they must stake their claims quickly before the people following behind grabbed the land. This means even now there’s an antipathy to wasting time."
So it follows that punctuality is essential. If there’s any doubt, arrive five minutes early and wait, in contrast to French custom where it’s best to arrive five minutes late.
This influences response times. You need it when?
Yesterday? OK, no problem.
Americans want everything – information, deliveries – instantly says Ms Stewart-Allen. "The general rule for replying to phone messages and e-mail is no more than 24 hours, possibly 48 if you’re travelling.
Waiting any longer than two days for a response implies that the person is not interested, slow, unprofessional.
In Europe a week may be a satisfactory time but not in America.
"This obsession with speed has a strong influence on marketing. "In the States we accept that we can go to market with a product or service which isn’t 100 per cent ready.
We’re happy with 80 per cent so we can get in and get ahead.
”Here, being more risk-averse, you want to be absolutely certain it’s right before launching a product but it means that by being second you seem a copycat and have to sell the
idea that you’re late but better."
It’s the subtleties of culture and class that can cause most confusion. Ms Stewart-Allen first encountered it at PA where there was a certain member of her team with an illustrious ancestry.
"My colleagues laughed harder at his jokes, were deferential and, although he was just average, he got better assignments. Americans respect someone for achievements, not their DNA."
Understanding the gamut of linguistic and cultural differences can make the course of business run more smoothly but even if we learn each other’s language there is still a natural barrier that keeps our two nations apart. As Eddie Izzard wisely observed: "America and Britain are divided by the Atlantic Ocean."
One of the common greetings in the UK is to say to someone, “Hey, you alright?” or “Hey, you ok?” These terms are not socially used in America and can be perceived as asking whether there is something wrong with their health or suggesting that there is an obvious reason why they may not be ok. Instead try “What’s going on?” or a simple “How are you?”
Americans have the tendency to exaggerate much more than the British, using numerous superlatives and vivid descriptions even in an average situation. Many Americans also tend to be highly positive and downplay negative things. This may be confusing because, in an effort to be polite, an American may not tell you directly their opinions.
Beyond vocabulary differences are differences in body language. Body language contributes to conversation and interaction as much as verbal communication. Generally speaking, Americans prefer a greater amount of personal space during conversation; one arm’s length is a good estimate. They tend to shake hands (firmly) with people they meet. That said, some Americans can be more touchy-feely than Brits and may be inclined to hug you as a greeting (maybe before you feel close enough to them to merit hugging!)
It is common for Americans to maintain direct eye contact with the speaker and to smile during the conversation, as this is indicative of attentiveness and an interest in the conversation. Many also “speak with their hands,” expressing themselves through a wide range of gestures.
American televison networks cannot get enough of British series, thanks to the success of Downton Abbey and Sherlock
When The Office’s David Brent made the jump across the pond, Ricky Gervais’s much-loved character from Slough was transformed into a small-time Pennsylvania office supplies manager for its US audience. The Westminster drama the Thick of It, meanwhile, was teleported to Washington DC.
But now it seems the days of American TV bosses giving British shows the Hollywood makeover treatment are over.
Industry experts say Americans have finally got a taste for British television and record numbers are tuning in – from the several million watching Downton Abbey and Sherlock to those catching Call the Midwife and Broadchurch.
In the ultimate validation of our craft, NBC, one of the country’s biggest cable networks, recently signed up three seasons of fantasy-adventure Merlin and gave it primetime billing – previously unheard of for a British programme.
A dramatic change in viewing habits has meant the US’s import of television from across the pond is at an all-time high – expected to have risen to more than £500 million in the last year.
As Hollywood entertainment site Deadline announced this week: "The British aren’t coming – they’re here to stay".
Broadcasters have been enjoying record success with the three most popular imported dramas – Downton Abbey, Doctor Who and Sherlock.
The first episode of the fourth series of Downton, broadcast earlier this year, drew a record audience in the US with 10.2 million viewers for PBS – the highest-rated drama season premiere in the network’s history.
The show has achieved a cult following, with American fans organising Sunday night viewing parties, buying millions of dollars worth of themed merchandise and chatting endlessly about the latest plot twists on social media.
The quintessentially British detective show Sherlock, meanwhile, reaches up to four million viewers an episode.
To put it into context, homegrown programming such as PBS’s own nightly Newshour brings in around 2.7 million.
"US audiences are looking for something of a better quality than they are finding in the cluttered American media landscape.
"The UK has a rich history of storytelling and is delivering some of the best television currently available anywhere."
Highest average US viewing figures:
Downton Abbey 10.2m (PBS)
Merlin 5.3m (NBC)
Doctor Who 5m (BBC America)
Sherlock 4.1m (PBS)
Mr Selfridge 4m (PBS)
The Paradise 3.1m (PBS)
Call the Midwife 3m (PBS)
There are many British words which are different to American words
A lorry is a slimmer truck.
A lift is an elevator.
A fortnight is two weeks.
A chemist is a person who works in a drugstore.
A dual carriageway is a freeway.
Trousers – Pants
Pants / Underwear / Knickers – Underwear / panties
Jumper / Pullover / Sweater / – Jersey
Pinafore Dress – Jumper
Vest – Undershirt
Waistcoat – Vest
Wellington Boots / Wellies – Galoshes
Mac (slang for Macintosh) – Rain Coat
Plimsolls – Gym Shoes
Trainers – Sneakers
Braces – Suspenders
Suspenders – Holds up stockings
Dressing Gown – Robe
Nappy – Diaper
Pinny / Apron – Apron
Polo Neck – Turtle Neck
Dressing Gown – Bath Robe
Swimming costume / Cozzy – Bathing Suit
accelerator – gas pedal, accelerator
aerial (TV, radio) – antenna, aerial
Alsatian – German shepherd
American Indian – Native American
anorak – jacket, parka
at the weekend – on the weekend
aubergine – eggplant
bank holiday- national holiday, federal holiday
barrister, solicitor – lawyer, attorney
base rate – prime rate
to bath – to bathe
beetroot – beet
bill – check
bin, dustbin – garbage can/trash can
biro – ball-point pen
biscuit – cookie
bonnet – hood
boot – trunk
braces – suspenders
(round) brackets – parentheses
candy floss – cotton candy
car park – parking lot
caravan – trailer
caretaker – janitor
catalogue – catalog
centre – center
chemist’s shop – drugstore, pharmacy
chips – French fries
city centre – downtown, city center
cloakroom – checkroom, coatroom
clothes peg – clothespin
colour – color
cooker – stove
(bathing) costume – swimsuit
cosy – cozy
cot (Baby) – crib
cotton wool – cotton ball
courgette – zucchini
crisps – potato chips
crossroads – crossroad (in the country) intersection (town and country)
curriculum vitae (CV) – résumé curriculum vitae
dinner jacket – tux, tuxedo
directory enquiries – directory assistance
diversion – detour
double cream – heavy cream
draught – draft
draughts – checkers
drawing pin – thumb tack
dressing gown – (bath) robe
drink driving – drunk driving
driving licence – driver’s license
dummy – pacifier
duvet – comforter
earth wire – ground wire
engaged – busy
enquiry – inquiry
everywhere – everyplace, everywhere
expiry date – expiration date
fancy dress – costumes
Father Christmas – Santa Claus
favourite – favorite
to fill in – to fill out
film – movie
fire brigade – fire department
first floor – second floor
fish-fingers – fish-sticks
flannel – face cloth, wash cloth
flat – apartment
flavour – flavor
football – soccer
fortnight – two weeks
fringe – bangs
garden – yard
gear lever – gear shift
Gents – Men’s Room
goods train – freight train
harbour – harbor
headmaster, headteacher – principal
to hire – to rent
hire purchase – installment plan
hockey – field hockey
holiday – vacation
hoover – vacuum cleaner
humour – humor
icing sugar – powdered sugar
indicator – blinker, turn signal
jacket potato – baked potato
jewellery – jewelery
Joe Bloggs – John Doe
jumble sale – yard sale
jumper – sweater
kilometre – kilometer
ladybird – ladybug
to lay the table – to set the table
letter box – mail box
lift – elevator
litre – liter
lorry – truck
lost property – lost and found
match – game
maths – math
mobile (phone) – cellphone
motorbike – motorcycle
motorway – freeway, highway, expressway, interstate
mum – mom
nappy – diaper
national insurance number – social security number
neighbour – neighbor
note – bill
notice board – bulletin board
number plate – license plate
a pack of cards – a deck of cards
a packet of cigarettes – a pack of cigarettes
pants – underpants
paraffin – kerosene/kerosine
pavement – sidewalk
pedestrian crossing – crosswalk
pepper – bell pepper
petrol – gas
phone box – phone booth
plane – airplane
post – mail
post code – zip code
postman – mailman
pram, pushchair – baby carriage, baby buggy, stoller
prawn – shrimp
primary school – elementary school grade school
programme – program
to queue – to line up
quid – buck
railway – railroad
reception – front desk
to ring – to call
roundabout – traffic circle, rotary
rucksack – backpack
rubber – eraser
rubbish – garbage
share – stock
shop – store
shop assistant – sales clerk
sick – nauseated
single ticket – one-way ticket
Sorry – Excuse me.
spanner – wrench
sports day – fields day
public school – private school
stock – inventory
subway – underpass
sultana – raisin
sweet shop – candy store
tap – faucet
taxi – cab
term – semester
theatre – theater
timetable – schedule
tin – can
toilet, loobathroom – rest room
town centre – downtown, city center
torch – flashlight
trainers – sneakers
tram – streetcar
travelled – traveled
trolley – cart
trousers – pants
tyre – tire
underground, tube – subway
underlay – carpet pad
undertaker – mortician
vest – undershirt
waistcoat – vest
wallet – billfold
wardrobe – closet
to wash – wash up
wing – fender
year – grade
a crossing – crosswalk
zip – zipper
Can you add anymore?