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Learning The (Non-Verbal) Lingo

For Brits in the States, it’s pretty much accepted that although we all speak English, it’s “not quite the same”. I (and others) have written extensively on the differences between British and American English, – differences which can result in embarrassment, confusion and/or hilarity.

What we often overlook however, are the many differences in non-verbal communication that exist for Brits (and other foreigners) in the USA.

Take for instance the non-RSVP. If you invite an American to something they’re not particularly interested in, they will often just not acknowledge the invite. Oh, I’m not talking about formal written invitations; they’re not that rude. However, if for example, you casually suggest an activity they’d rank as a distant second to a tooth extraction, you just might not hear from them.As a Brit, your impression will probably be that they couldn’t possibly be ignoring you – surely they didn’t get the e-mail/voicemail? Indeed that might be the case, but if your second attempt dies the same death however, just drop the matter. They’re not interested, and they don’t want to insult or embarrass you by saying “Not our cup of tea”.

This non-response can also come in the form of a missing e-mail, as English blogger Iota has discovered. “I’ve had several occasions where I’ve had a zero reply and thought it odd. Two were when I wrote nice friendly emails to my son’s violin teacher, explaining that he wasn’t going to continue with her. The first violin teacher moved, and it was a half hour journey right over the other side of town. We went to England for the summer, and when we got back, I just thought it was a bit silly (since I’d always have two other kids in tow, and have to occupy them for half an hour while son had his lesson), so emailed to explain. She never replied. I assumed she was angry that I hadn’t let her know BEFORE we went to England, i.e. she’d kept his space for 3 months for nothing. But then a year or so later, the same thing happened with violin teacher number 2. I’d had email exchanges and a phone conversation about how son was losing interest; I emailed her to say that he would be taking a break, but thanking her for her time with him and for all her suggestions. She never replied.

The third occasion was when – in good faith – I looked round a school with same son in Florida. We were genuinely investigating the possibility….then it all fell through. I’d spent the whole morning at this school and when it fell through, I emailed the head teacher who I’d spent the time with, apologizing, saying how great the school was and how disappointed I was that my son wouldn’t have the opportunity of going there, and saying that we had investigated the option in good faith. She never replied. Of course when she’d been showing us round, she’d been gushy gushy, so it was a real slap in the face. Or maybe she sent an email and it got lost. That’s always a possibility (though I’m just bending over backwards to be nice here…)”.

Similarly, if you invite an American to an event they can’t make (whether they want to or not), don’t expect the full back story when they decline. Most Americans don’t feel the need to explain or justify why they aren’t able to attend your party/concert/fund-raiser, and will often merely say “I’m sorry we have other plans”, or words to that effect.

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As an American in the UK, the British desire for full disclosure used to puzzle author and blogger Meagan Adele Lopez. “I used to be so confused as to why the Brits would answer and explain SO much about why they couldn’t do something. I used to think – “a simple yes or no” would suffice. I attributed it to them feeling bad, and coming up with excuses to make themselves feel better. Now I get that it’s just a cultural difference!”

If an American accepts an invitation to dinner, expect to be barraged with offers of everything from the main course to a separate meal for the children. The question “What Can I Bring?” is such a matter of course in the USA that there’s even a book with the same title, by author and baker Anne Byrne . It gives tips on what goes down well at what type of party, how it should be stored and how it can be “toted” to the event.

As a Brit, I used to say “Oh everything’s taken care of, don’t worry about bringing anything”. Now I know to give them something to bring even if it’s only a crunchy loaf of bread. They’ll turn up with something anyway so I might as well make sure it fits in with the rest of the meal! Only took be about ten years to admit defeat though.

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.

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