At some point during World War 2, the United Kingdom and the United States of America put aside their previous military differences and announced that theirs was a “special relationship”. In truth it’s been a rather tortuous rivalry ever since they first chucked our tea overboard, but what the heck; let bygones be bygones. Only recently we saw Hillary Clinton (as Secretary of State) pointing out that the relationship “stands the test of time”, even though said “time” has only been a matter of decades. Now, various polls show that a majority of Brits think the USA is quite good, and Americans return the compliment with similar, positive numbers.From time to time however, this “special relationship” seems more like that of squabbling siblings. Deep down, we obviously like each other but boy, oh boy, we can really get on each other’s nerves and we’re not afraid to say it. And like many close family members, we treat each other in a way that we never would treat anyone else.
Take, for example, the comments recently made by Matthew Burzan, the current American ambassador in London. Apparently he’s fed up with being served lamb and potatoes all the time. “There are limits and I have reached them”, he said to Tatler magazine. The outrage! Now, while all this is mildly amusing, (and let’s face it, I’d probably get sick of lamb at every formal function too), can you imagine the ambassador in Japan saying “Sushi, sushi, every darn day,” or the dude in Rome complaining that s/he just wants a plate of hash browns? No. That would be extremely undiplomatic and inappropriate. But apparently it’s okay to insult the Brits thus because, well, you know, we’re all buddies.
It goes both ways though. As a Brit who’s lived in the USA for decades, I am often amazed at my fellow countrymen who come over here and upset the natives. Last year we saw Piers Morgan, relatively fresh off the boat, shouting at Americans about their gun culture. Now, whether you agree with him or not, bringing Americans on your show and calling them “incredibly stupid” is not quite the way to win friends and influence people. It seems however, there’s only so much Americans will take, as Morgan’s show was cancelled and, I believe, he is now safely parked on the other side of the Pond again.
I have been part of online conversations where expat Brits have proudly announced their refusal to speak “American”. Comments like “It’s nappy and dummy (instead of diaper and pacifier) and if they don’t understand it, then tough” are quite common in the various discussion threads. In which other country would you find expats insisting on using British English words in the certain knowledge that they will not be understood? And, more importantly, looking down on people in their host country for not understanding the words? Only in America, I think. Do they do it in Australia I wonder? If Russell Crowe is anything to go by, the Brits down under are probably too scared.
Perhaps British journalist and author Peter Hitchins has it right after all, when he says, “Americans may say they love our accents (I have been accused of sounding ‘like Princess Di’) but the more thoughtful ones resent and rather dislike us as a nation and people, as friends of mine have found out by being on the edge of conversations where Americans assumed no Englishmen were listening.
And it is the English, specifically, who are the targets of this. Few Americans have heard of Wales. All of them have heard of Ireland and many of them think they are Irish. Scotland gets a sort of free pass, especially since Braveheart re-established the Scots’ anti-English credentials among the ignorant millions who get their history off the TV.”
Toni Summers Hargis has a new book – “The Stress-Free Guide to Studying In the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students”. (Summertime). She is also the author of “Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom” (St. Martin’s Press) and blogs as Expat Mum.
Read Toni's other Expat Focus articles here.