Living in a foreign country can be a great opportunity to look worldly and sophisticated or an easy way to appear absolutely clueless. There are times when you are surrounded by people who are envious of the fact that you are from Europe and you feel almost sophisticated regaling them with tales of your far off homeland. Then there the times when you lack some important piece of knowledge and you feel like a complete plonker because of it. The first time I dialled into a conference call at work I was asked to dial the conference line followed by the pound key. I looked fruitlessly at the keypad on my phone for the £ symbol and ended up having to ask a colleague where it was. After a little bit of mirth on their part it was pointed out that the pound sign in the US is # which we call the hash key in the UK. For two countries that supposedly share the same language this sort of thing happens surprisingly often so here is my handy guide to not looking like an idiot in the US.
- Find a friendly American to show you how things work. My friendly American is my wife but as I am so hopeless at trying to not look like an idiot I need her full time so you will have to find another one. There are approximately 318 million of them so every Brit should have at least 5 potential helpers. Americans often like talking to Brits so it shouldn’t be hard to find one who is willing to help. If your friendly helper isn’t around then you may substitute them for another one temporarily. I have some nice colleagues who teach me important things like Girl Scout cookies are worth buying and where to find Indian food in Boston that actually tastes like Indian food. Warning; your friendly American will be able to tell you that a tap is called a faucet in the US but he or she may not accept that tap is a better word. There is also a high (90%) chance that they will try and mimic your accent and an even higher chance that it won’t sound anything like yours but you are expected to return the favour and get their accent equally wrong which is the fun part.
- Be careful with words. Some words and phrases have different meanings in the UK and US meaning that you can offend people or appear rude by accident. I’ll never forget the time I told my sister in law and her family I was “full of beans” either. I was referring to having an excess of energy but they thought I was happily breaking wind! It’s also difficult to be angry when you use British words like “bloody”, you will be in mid rant about how the local transit system hates you and makes you hate life (yes I’m referring to you MBTA), but the emphasis of your rant will be lost if you use British slang or swear words as your listener will find it “funny” or “cute”.
- Watch and learn. Keurig coffee makers are ubiquitous in the US but I had never used one before moving to the US and the first time I saw one in action I stared at it like a caveman being introduced to fire by a neighbouring tribe. The waste disposal unit in our kitchen sink is another example; you let the food detritus in your kitchen sink be chopped to tiny pieces by some hidden blades, but if you put something too big or too solid down there then you will know about it courtesy of your kitchen vibrating to pieces. Biding your time and letting someone else show you how to use something new before you break it is always a good idea, especially if there is an audience.
- As the saying goes “It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt”. If you don’t know the correct way of doing something and don’t have the friendly American to show you, don’t own up to it and pretend you are merely doing it a better way. This is how people drive in Massachusetts sadly but driving is not one of the areas I would recommend using this advice for!
- Be prepared to be caught off guard. When I made my first ever purchase in a clothing store in the US a few years ago the store was pretty quiet and the girl at the register asked me for my phone number. Wow I thought, this whole British accent thing really works! Turns out it’s standard practice at retailers in the US to ask for your phone number and/or email address so they can send you special offers/mine your personal data. Even paying for things is done differently; Americans mostly still sign for things and chip and pin machines are a rarity so make sure you don’t try and type your pin into the card reader like I did once! It’s a minefield out there.
Do you have any advice on how to blend in and not look like an idiot where you live or anecdotes about when you have got things badly wrong in a foreign country?