Whether you move around the world or just to one country, I guarantee you’ll make a fool of yourself at some point. It can be a language blooper or a culture clanger, but it’s there, lurking on your horizon. For the most part too, it’ll happen when you have an audience of at least five, who will then repeat the story until it becomes an urban legend.
We’ve all done it, so you’ll be in good company. In fact, take comfort from these examples of red faces and cringing embarrassment.
The first wedding I ever attended in the States was just a minefield of social gaffes for me. I wore a hat (it was 1991 after all, and I was hot off the plane from London). I was THE only person wearing head gear, and I think some people looked at it as an English eccentricity. I couldn’t even take it off because I had the dreaded “hat hair”.Then, when my husband and I went to take our seats, I completely ignored the young man standing at the top of the aisle pointing his elbow at me. Apparently I was supposed to take his arm and let him walk me to my pew, but I marched straight past and seated myself while my husband shot him a “she’s not from here” look of explanation. Fortunately I didn’t learn about my mistake until my husband deigned to tell me – about a week later.
Another personal gaffe was my first US Christmas work lunch. The waiter was taking drinks orders and I didn’t register that the two women before me had ordered iced tea. I ordered a glass of red wine, to be met with an uncomfortable look from the waiter and deathly silence all around me as my colleagues waited for my boss’ reaction. (He just laughed at the situation.) Not one single person other than me ordered alcohol, even though this was our Christmas celebration. I couldn’t believe it. Not wanting to change my order and look like a suck-up I said, “Well obviously I’m only having the one” and drank diet soda after that. Goodness knows what got written up in my Personnel file.
Then there are the language bloopers you make in front of what seems like a stadium size crowd. I’ve written countless times about my mother who, on her first visit to the States, turned to my husband and asked him to “knock her up” if she hadn’t appeared by 9am the following morning. She still blushes a nice shade of crimson at the memory. Susanna, an American in the UK and founder of British Mummy Bloggers, confesses to pronouncing the Scottish city of Dunfries with the “I’ll have FRIES with that” ending, instead of rhyming it with “fleece”. (I have to admit, that is rather funny but come to think of it, totally understandable.)
Journalist and blogger Jennifer Howze, an American in London remembers “The biggest misstep was when I walked into the kitchen one day and my husband was holding up a pale blue, speckled square with a little red center. “Candy!” I thought, since it looked just like I remembered. Sweetarts from my youth. I said, “Hey! Can I have one of those?” He responded with, “What? A dishwasher tablet?”
And how’s this for a lesson in humility – Di Hayman, editor in chief of PowderRoomGrafitti fondly recalls “the first time I went to fill up my hire car in the US – turned up at the petrol station, got out, walked around the car several times and couldn’t find the petrol cap. A bloke eventually came out and asked me what the problem was. When I told him I couldn’t find the petrol cap he did the whole ’You’re not from these parts, are ya?’ before pulling down the license plate to reveal …….the petrol cap – Ho hum!”
Yes folks, in the expat world, every so often you’ve just got to swallow your pride and admit that you look like a total eejit.
Toni Summers Hargis is the author of "Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom", (St. Martin’s Press) and blogs as Expat Mum.