IEC: The Unexpected Language Barrier

Originally, this was supposed to be all about culture shock; however it’s turned into a linguistic analysis of British-Canadian communication.  Or as I’ve come to know it; the minefield that is everyday conversation.

I recently read a really interesting article on BBC News about how Americans and Brits swear differently.  It got me thinking about how fanny doesn’t mean ‘bum’ in England and how friendships are built on mutual disrespect and insults. I wouldn’t say I’m one to partake in ‘banter’- because generally when I am, I say horrible things to people I love, and I always sound far too horrible. And then I spend weeks reliving them and feeling like the world’s worst person.

Side note: sorry again Han about the thing I said at Christmas, I didn’t mean it at all and I’m really sorry.

Anyway, this led me to contemplate my experiences here in Canada and how our Canuck friends across the ocean, like Americans, use the English language far differently to back in old Blighty.

This is the Language Barrier

That’s right.  And I bet you weren’t expecting there to be one when you hopped on the plane at Gatwick/Heathrow/Birmingham/Manchester/Belfast to arrive in Canada not realising what anyone really meant when they spoke to you.  You still might not realise it.

I’ll tell you how I did.

So, after a couple of months of unemployment, I began working at a temp job in downtown Toronto at the end of April.  It’s an amazing office with lovely people who are some of the nicest and accommodating folk I’ve ever met.  Even when I inadvertently offend them.  Like the occasion I will now retell to you.

Here it is:

“Good Morning MJ, You all right?”

“Great thanks”

That was it.

It’s not like MJ, my dear colleague, was seriously offended and ran off crying and my previously Zen-like work environment was forever crushed. Not at all.

A few days later we went for a walk, and I was telling her about cultural differences and how everyone says ‘How are you?’ as a normal greeting.  Which to me (and maybe this is different if you’re not from Gloucestershire/ are me) sounds like something had been wrong, or as if I’d been going through a particularly traumatic event in my life and you wanted to check on me, like, ‘how are you during this tragic life event?’ or ‘how are you following the diagnosis of your terminal illness?’.

To me, that’s the level of sincerity with which I take a question such as ‘how are you?’  So much so, that I have only recently developed a decent response.

‘Good thanks, you?’

MJ cackled at this story.  It turns out that largely, in Toronto at least, ‘you all right?’ is exactly the same as my interpretation of ‘how are you?’

‘You all right after being hit by that train?’

‘You all right? You look tired’

I get it.  But she’d said that it had affected her so much, that she’d even mentioned it to a friend, who’s response was, ‘oh my gosh, did you have a sad/angry face or something?’

Who would have ever thought that this difference could cause so much anxiety?

Maybe it’s just me, and anyone else who experiences this move is able to adapt smoothly and seamlessly.  Not me! Not at all!

I love living in Canada and I love the food and the people and after almost 4 months I’m starting, slowly but surely, to adapt.

I’ve learnt that self-deprecating humour is regularly met with genuine sympathy.  Take for example, another classic Lorna + Customer Service People moment (previous experience is detailed here).

It was lunchtime.  I went to purchase my lunch in Sobeys, the local grocery store near to my workplace.  A common trend prior to these experiences is that I spend far too long contemplating a purchase or a food choice.  I had been stood in front of the glass pane deciding between a prepared chicken breast with sweet potatoes AND roast asparagus or just chicken and sweet potato and maybe grabbing an apple or something.  This truly was the source of the entire problem.

So, the nice lady behind the service counter arrives and asks me what I would like.

The only thing I’m confident I want is the chicken.

I’m about 90% on the sweet potatoes and 50% on the asparagus.  To this day, I’m not even sure if I like asparagus – but that’s not the story.

‘What can I get you?’

‘Can I get the chicken breast please’ – looks around the glass pane as if contemplating an additional choice, which I am. I just thought it was blatant.

Thinking about the sweet potatoes and about to pipe up when…

‘Here you go, thanks have a good day.  Next please’

I’m handed a plastic container containing a single, dry, refrigerated chicken breast.  No sides at all.  This was literally the worst situation that could’ve happened to me.  What do I do?  A chicken breast is not a meal.

It is now on reflection, and with a better knowledge of Sobeys and feeling much calmer, that I could’ve purchased a nice side salad and all of my problems would have been solved.

But that is most definitely NOT what I did.

Instead, I look at the chicken breast and all I feel is panic. I definitely will not be piping up to the lady who has just handed me this, in this context, random piece of meat.  I will also not be putting it down somewhere in a different section of the supermarket.  So I make a final decision.  There is nothing else for it but to purchase the chicken breast and LEAVE as soon as possible.  I have decided that in the middle of a grocery store I have no other viable alternatives.  Like buy a side salad. So I made the world’s most random and useless purchase and head back up to the office.  Where I promptly drop my new chicken breast off in my bag and decide to relay this, in my opinion, hilarious tale of ‘the time I tried to get lunch and came back with a single piece of chicken’.

And this is where the cultural difference comes in.

I thought, this tale would be met with responses such as;

‘You’re an idiot’

‘Why didn’t you just choose some sides?’

‘How is this a thing?’

Instead of the teasing and the jeering and what I had imagined would be some kind of clever new ‘chicken-for-lunch Pegram’ nickname, I was met with genuine concern and compassion.

Offers of alternative lunches.  Suggestions that I march back and ask for the sides I did not have chance to select.  Concern.  Assurances that service has always been terrible there.  Straight faces filled with sympathy for the poor British girl who cannot navigate a simple ‘I want food’, ‘good here is food’ transaction.

Instead, I decided to have the chicken breast for dinner, although I already had several chicken breasts at home, and went to get Subway.  It felt like the safe option.

But it is these responses that throw me occasionally.  I spent most of my first month at my lovely new job just trying to figure out what people were saying to me.

‘Have a good day’ – that’s so nice. Canadians are so polite.  It’s just BYE. Like any normal person would say, it’s just a regularly used alternative, akin to ‘see you later’ or ‘cheerio’ – I don’t believe anyone says cheerio anymore except my Gran, but it’s still an alternative!

It was exhausting.  But it gets better and more comfortable and after a while, like with anywhere else in the world, you adapt and you learn and you stop asking people if they’re all right, unless they’re red or blotchy.

There are also significant benefits to being ‘new in the country’.

When a joke doesn’t go over well:  ‘That would’ve killed in the UK’ – no it wouldn’t have but no one has to know.

When you accidently swear in the workplace: ‘oh that’s not rude in England’ or ‘I’m going to start saying bloody more, it’s so cute’.

It’s an excellent chance to practice all of your regional accents and to incorporate any regional slang you wanted to make your own but couldn’t before.  I used to live in Nottingham where everyone calls you ‘duck’.  But being from Gloucestershire I always wanted to refer to everyone as duck but felt a fraud. Not in Canada! Ducks are EVERYWHERE here!  And no one says I sound like a farmer and I can convincingly say things like, ‘I sound just like Fiona Bruce’ (BBC News presenter and host of Antiques Roadshow), and next to nobody knows who that is, so it might as well be true.

It’s also a great chance to hear about parts of your own country you’ve:

  1. Never heard of
  2. Never been to

Almost everyone has a UK story, just as everyone in the UK has a Canada story.

‘My sister lives in England, Norwich – I visited once, lovely place’

I’m not even sure where Norwich is.  I’m sure it’s lovely.  I don’t know.  But I still thank them for calling Norwich, a place I have no connection to, lovely and reinforce the notion.

‘Thank you! I’ve not been, but I’ve heard it is, indeed, lovely’ – from you, because you just told me.  It could be a terrible place.  I don’t know.  The whole of the East is a mystery to me.  If it even is East.  There is no pride in my lack of knowledge of Britain.  However I’ve been learning more from completing the county quiz on Sporcle in my free time.

There’s also times when you forget you’re abroad – which are some of my favourite times because that’s when I realise I’m starting to feel like I stand out less, and you forget that you should maybe try and adapt to the language you’re in.

‘I’m just nipping to the loo’

‘I’ll pop it in the rubbish’

‘I was just in the lift when…’

Sometimes there’s confusion, other times there’s a look of pure endearment.  My boss regularly says things like, ‘you can ask me anything with that accent’.  Not secured a raise yet though.

Initially, it can be daunting and tiring and it can also feel like people are being somehow insincere with you.  Or, you can become suspicious of what message is trying to be communicated.  Just ride this wave of uncertainty.  Add a layer to that thick British, or otherwise, accent of yours and embrace this new cultural change.  I imagine that this whole experience would be 50 – 100 times worse if English wasn’t my first language.  Generally, I’ve found that everyone is so keen to help here and if you get confused, just ask!! Who doesn’t love a little chat about comparing how you say things.  Just remember it’s AL-U-MIN-I-UM and OREG-AAH-NO. 🙂


4 thoughts on “IEC: The Unexpected Language Barrier

  1. Paul Atkinson

    Hi Lorna: I’m pretty sure you will have an excellent book with a compilation of these blogs. Once again, these are golden observations that have to be made early, since it is amazing how quickly one stops noticing!


    1. Haha!! I was thinking exactly that!! It’s such a less pressure way to write a book. I’m starting to get comfortable and the language differences have definitely got less pronounced. I’m starting to try and reassert my Britishness by saying words I would never say at home like ‘spiffing’. Haha!!


  2. Hello Lorna,

    Small world moment… I ended up on your blog via Twitter through a colleague’s friend’s friend (or something like that). I’m assuming you’re the Lorna I know form work, there can’t be that many Lorna Pegrams from Gloucetershire hanging around in Toronto!

    My sides are aching from laughing. I’ve been here 12+ years and I still get into trouble speaking English. Phrases that are completely innocuous at home are not understood as well here. On one of my very first days in Canada teaching a class of 15 years olds I asked, “does anyone have a rubber?” Or, after meeting my (last) new boss, and finding out her car had broken down, asked “can I give you a lift?”…

    I refuse to call it a-loo-mi-num. Biscuits and cookies are different (have you had what passes for a scone here, a “tea biscuit”?). My car has a boot. And my pants are under my trousers 🙂

    See you tomorrow.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amazing!!! What a small small world indeed!! I’m so glad you stumbled here!! Hahaha I didn’t even think about the rubber connotation – it’s a minefield!!!! See you tomorrow!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s