A dual UK-US citizen helps us better understand the USA’s largest overseas source market.
Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw is attributed with saying, “The British and Americans are two people separated by a common language.” Aside from stimulating the light laughter for which Shaw was famous, the remark contains an element of truth that is reflected in the way American and British tourism industry professionals bridge the linguistic and cultural divide on a daily basis. Is there anyone who knows the answers to questions of conflict and misunderstanding before they manifest themselves? Yes.
Who better to help us with this question than Laurie Jo Miller Farr, editor of The Travel Vertical, INBOUND‘s sister publication, and co-host of The Travel Vertical Podcast. A polished wordsmith and veteran of the tourism industry, she’s uniquely qualified to chime in as a dual US / UK citizen that lived and worked on both sides of the pond for half-a-lifetime.
INBOUND spoke recently with Farr about the matter of the common language owned and practiced by Americans and Britons and the issues that arise between them. Our first question was: Just how does one become a citizen of both the United States and the United Kingdom?
Laurie Jo: There are a few ways, such as lineage, although there are fewer paths to UK citizenship than in the past, particularly since Brexit. I moved from New York City in the 80s when American banks were investing in expat assignments and my husband was sent for 2-4 years. (Turns out it was more like 24+ years.) After five years in the same job and as a homeowner with children born there, I applied to the Home Office as “settled,” requesting an application for citizenship. Dual nationality is allowed in the UK.
INBOUND: Obviously, there are going to be words and expressions that have a different meaning or nuance to the listener — depending on subject matter. Can you name a few?
Laurie Jo: Sure. A trip to the green grocer, fishmonger, chemist, surgery, or ironmonger (translation: a fruit & vegetable stand, a fish & seafood seller, drugstore, doctor’s office, hardware store) can be especially challenging. My hilarious go-to reference book was “Brit-Think, Ameri-Think: A Transatlantic Survival Guide.” Later, I contributed to a guide called “American English | English American,” a two-way glossary for expats.
Returning to the US 25 years later, I wrote a popular online quiz for USA Today, “Can You Pass For a Proper Brit?” that explored Britishisms like biros and biscuits (ballpoint pens and cookies). Then, there are everyday things Americans just don’t do, such as a boot sale (hundreds of cars selling unwanted junk —like a tailgate party without food, drinks or a game) and builder’s tea (a strong, sweet tea brewed in an old mug served at home to your repairman).
INBOUND: Do you recall a situation in which an American has unintentionally provoked laughter or a groan (or embarrassment or anger) because of a word or word combination or expression?
Laurie Jo: Oh, in the early weeks and months, there are plenty of surprises and pitfalls. Mostly, it’s confusion that’s provoked. I recall a trip to London for our initial housing search, a whirlwind of property showings in different neighborhoods. In particular, I recall what the estate agent (realtor) said about one apartment we liked. “Get your skates on. This letting is in a brilliant situation with direct communal garden access in a purpose-built block with car park and porter.” Huh?
The cultural divide is real. One time, watching “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” there was a chap in the hot seat who could not—mind you, for £ 250,000—answer the question: Who was the first president of the United States? But, switch it around and ask Americans to name the first British prime minister, right?
INBOUND: Were you asked to give advice on the subject to a first-time US visitor to the UK, or to someone going on business for the first time, what are your pointers?
Laurie Jo: Before moving to London, I traveled quite a bit during a decade as VP-Tourism at the New York Convention & Visitors Bureau, so the UK was easy-peasy compared to some far-flung places where language skills are a bigger challenge. A note of caution about regional accents when doing business beyond London. You may not understand half of what’s being said in Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow or Edinburgh. I didn’t. In London, I was regional sales and marketing director for Hilton Hotels Corporation, calling on tour operators all over the UK … but it took absolutely ages to train the ear.
Looking back, I’d say you’d be fine in London with a few pointers such as escalator etiquette. It’s terribly important to stand on the right and walk on the left, or risk pissing people off. (By the way, to be pissed is to be drunk, not mad. And to be mad is to be crazy, not angry … and so it goes.)
More practical tips:
⦁ Don’t drive a rental car unless you know “The Highway Code.” There’s a lot more to know than which side of the road to drive on.
⦁ There’s no “bathroom,” but it’s perfectly acceptable to say you’re looking for “the gents,” “the ladies,” “the toilet,” or “the loo.”
⦁ “Way out” is just what it sounds like. Don’t look for an exit sign in the Underground (tube) or anywhere else.
⦁ When shopping, the “till” is the checkout.
⦁ When dining, the “bill” is the check. A check is a bank check and they’re almost unheard of these days.
INBOUND: Say you were to, figuratively, put on your UK “mindset” before going to a meeting with a British colleague who is in the tourism industry, what would it consist of?
Laurie Jo: You’re right. Beyond vocabulary, there are different mindsets for sure. Newness takes on a different meaning on either side of the pond. And so does presenting choices as important. For example, Americans value things that are new while Brits are just fine with “it’s always been done that way.” And while Americans expect 31 flavors of ice cream (at a minimum) at Baskin Robbins, the Brits have forever gotten along with just chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla (and are likely to be out of stock on one of them).
Lastly, Brits are too polite for their own good, sometimes to the point where niceties take over in an effort to not offend. Beware the Brit who says, “Leave it with me.” That means you’ll never hear back.
INBOUND: If you had just one question to ask a British tour operator today, what would it be?
Laurie Jo: I’d ask how can we better communicate the vastness of the USA and the time that’s required for a meaningful visit? Let’s explain that the whole of the United Kingdom – that’s all four countries – could fit inside of 11 different US states. England, Scotland, Wales, and North Ireland combined are one-third the size of Texas and half the size of California and comparable in size to Alabama or Pennsylvania. So, visitors should know that it’s not possible to have breakfast in Niagara Falls, lunch in Manhattan and dinner in Washington, DC.
On a lighter note, we might have a laugh over the dry wit of @SoVeryBritish on Twitter. Go there to get a cultural look in.