Thursday, October 13, 2011

Culture Share: USA - The US through UK Eyes: What's in a Name? And Other Language Differences

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Laura Pepper Wu discusses her culture shock upon arriving in the USA.

The US through UK Eyes: What’s In a Name? And Other Language Differences.

by Laura Pepper Wu

I think the reason that I experienced so much culture shock on my arrival to the US was that I was totally, 100%, unprepared for it. I had lived in Asia for almost 4 years prior, so moving to the US seemed like it was going to be a breeze. I was expecting no language problems, a similar culture, and I felt that since I had seen so many US movies and TV shows that nothing could surprise me. How wrong I was!

The big, obvious differences were the easiest to grasp and get used to. Within a couple of weeks I no longer gasped at the size of the food portions or the oversized cars that rule the road in California. It took me a little longer to grasp the opening hours of the shops, to feel comfortable driving on the right hand side of the road, to remember that I could turn right on a red light, but perhaps only a month or two. It was the small, subtle differences that really got me. The ones that I couldn't even put my finger on until a visiting friend pointed them out, or until they would suddenly dawn on me months into my stay here. This is what I would like to talk about today.

When British people meet for the first time in any situation, be it at the park, at the pub or even at a party, we rarely, if ever, exchange names until it is absolutely necessary. You can talk to someone at the pub for hours until you ask for their name, usually when he or she is about to leave or you have to excuse yourself. Neighbors might say hello to each other every morning for years without ever knowing what to call each other. If you bump into someone on the street and talk for the first time it might be considered rather intrusive to ever ask for their name without having a good reason to know (for example exchanging phone numbers or to find out if you know people in common). And yet here in the US I am asked for my name on a daily basis. It's usually the first thing people ask when we meet; they extend their hand and say "Hi, I'm John" even before we have had a conversation.

The first time I was asked my name in Starbucks I was shocked that they were going to call out my name and everyone in the store would know who I was and what I had ordered. It just seemed so personal!

I also realized early on that it is important for Americans to be called by their full name and that shortening the name might be considered rude or disrespectful. For Brits it's the norm; David is always Dave, Benjamin is always Ben, Thomas is usually Tom. And the abbreviations don't stop there. We will often replace a name with honey, love, babe, chuck, duck, sweetie, mate - anything to avoid using the name which might be construed as aggressive or too direct. In my dealings with American friends I have found it to be quite the opposite. Emails and texts will often begin with Dear Laura, Hi Laura and so on, which I have slowly learned is not aggressive but is instead considered to be respectful. This took me a while to get used to - I have a string of nicknames that I am known by and nobody calls me Laura in England except for my mother (and only when she is angry!)

Moving on from names, but remaining on the topic of the use of language, another subtle culture difference that I notice is the usage of the words sorry and thank you. Observe a transaction with a Brit over the counter and the Brit might say thank you several times; once when handing over the item to the cashier, once when receiving change, once when receiving the item back, and perhaps once again just for good measure. Here in the US I noticed that one thank you is sufficient, if it is said at all. Sorry is again used sparingly compared to the Brits; we are more likely to apologize to others for every small inconvenience that we cause which I have been told appears as passive or weak to an American.

When we talk about the difference between American English and British English, the emphasis is often on vocabulary. We say porridge, you say oatmeal; we say cotton bud, you say q-tip and so on. But the differences extend much further than that, to grammar as well. Brits ask questions differently using a lot more of the present perfect tense: “Have you had a nice day?” versus “Did you have a nice day?”. “Have you been dieting?” versus “Are you on a diet?”. I’ve certainly sub-consciously used the present perfect less since moving to the US; many of my friends and family in California speak English as a second language and would certainly have difficulty understanding what I was saying if I spoke English how I did 5 years ago.

To anyone making the transatlantic move, or to those in business who might deal with clients or colleagues from “across the pond”, I think it’s important for us to realise that just because we speak a similar language, we are two different cultures with two very different ways of thinking and interacting. This is something that has surprised me and continues to surprise me everyday and is worth keeping in mind.

How about you: have you ever had culture shock in a land that you thought you should be familiar with?

Born and raised in England, Laura Pepper Wu set off to Japan for a post-college adventure 5 years ago and hasn't quite made it back yet! She and her husband now live in sunny California where she writes to her heart's content and runs the site a community for writers of all levels to find the perfect critique partner.