A bonus to living in a country where they (allegedly) speak the same tongue, is being continually reminded how much nuance exists in the language. I’m not talking about words that are simply different, like lift/elevator or pavement/sidewalk. Neither do I mean variations in idiom, though those are plentiful. You don’t ‘pop to the shops’, but ‘run to the store real quick’; and you’re not ‘cross’, either — a term which causes confusion and/or hilarity — but ‘mad’. I mean instead the ways in which choices of words or terms can be used to signal your level of cultural integration. I remember a friend better-versed in French than I once advising that a snappy way of dealing with someone giving you grief in Paris would be to pop right back with ‘Q’est-ce-que tu veut que je fasse?’. While on the surface this merely means ‘What do you want me to do about it?’, you’re also tutoying your interlocutor (presumptively deploying the informal pronoun ‘tu’, rather than ‘vous’, a subtle way of being dismissive) and furthermore throwing the subjunctive at them (by using ‘fesse’ rather than ‘fait’, thereby indicating you’re not just some dickhead foreigner, but know how to talk proper). I may have got the French slightly wrong, but my point still holds.
There’s plenty of that to be had here, too, though I generally try to avoid snarling at people. There’s the way you respond to someone saying ‘Thank you’, for example. The obvious — and in most circumstances the best — is the traditional standby of ‘You’re welcome’. We still don’t really use that in the UK (despite what we try to teach our children), instead greeting any thanks with suspicion, as though they might be a covert additional request, or an invitation to have a fight. Here it is always sincere. You’ll hear richer versions sometimes, such as ‘Oh, you’re welcome’ or even ‘You’re so welcome’, though you have to be female or really quite camp to get away with the latter.
For the more adventurous, you can come back with a curt-seeming ‘Sure’, which is apparently not only perfectly acceptable and polite but quite manly; and recently I heard for the first time in ages someone responding with the old school ‘You bet!’, which I love, but isn’t something I’m going to be able to get away with in an English accent.
The accent is a problem. People here will greet friends (and strangers) with a ‘Hi’ or ‘Hey’, both of which I flatter myself I can carry off. When it comes to ‘Hey - what’s happening?’, or especially ‘Hey - what’s going on?’, however, I know my limits. Californians over quite a broad age range can make the latter sound relaxed and friendly and cool. I sound either like I’m making a genuine and rather querulous inquiry, or as if I’m on drugs and in danger of passing out.
Pronunciation effects individual words too, as with the ubiquitous ‘awesome’, used here to mean everything from a superlative to ‘thanks’ or even almost an equivalent to some uses of the British ‘cheers’. English people pronounce the first syllable ‘awe’ near the front of their mouth, with a pushing-out lip movement: Californians set it further back toward the throat and keep their lips out of it, producing more of an ‘ah-some’ or even ‘ossum’, exactly like ‘possum’ without the ‘p’. Even a word as short as ‘dude’ is hard to nail. ‘Dood’ comes close, but the vowel sound is again pulled further back in the mouth than feels entirely natural. I do my best with both words, naturally, but probably wind up coming across like someone’s dad trying to sound cool, which of course is what I am.
Harder still is the process of learning that you can say some things here with sincerity which in England would only ever be uttered with weapons-grade irony: ‘thank you for sharing with us’, for example. Conversely, the mix of vicious ribbing and self-deprecatory humor that forms the backbone of English banter is likely only to provoke bafflement, alarm, or the offer of an introduction to a therapist specializing in self-esteem issues.
There’s a general openness in American discourse that can make an English person feel unnerved and on the back foot, with inevitable consequences. The family was sitting at the counter having a sandwich in a nice little café up in the mountains the other Sunday (Coffee 9 in Ben Lomond, which I can highly recommend), and chatting amongst ourselves, when a teenage girl nearby asked me if I was speaking in a ‘British’ accent (there are no English people here, we’re all ‘British’). I allowed that I was, at which point she asked, with dawning wonder, if she had a accent. I said um, yes, an American one. This appeared to blow her mind. (The odd thing is that after a year and a half of living here, I’ve more-or-less stopped hearing the American accent as an accent, and instead accept that it’s me who talks funny).
The conversation went a little pear-shaped after that, sadly, as the girl continued to express her awe at the idea of her having an accent, to increasingly furrowed brows on our part, and then ultimately departed, doubtless feeling that the three weird British people had been starting to stare at her in an unfriendly way.
When it comes to conveying reserve bordering on hostility, we Brits don’t need recourse to words. But what do you want us to do about it, huh?