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  • Reverend James Squire

Do You Speak American?

My family and I have spent some extended time in England and became immersed in UK culture. Language is a big deal in helping and hurting relationships. Regarding the UK there are some basic challenges in translating the meaning of words. When we returned home my wife and I made a list of British words and their new meaning to us. You can always tell the nerd travelers. It would take me a long time to list them all, but here is a small sampling: public school is private school, a wanker is an idiot, crisps are chips, dustbin is a garbage can, football is soccer, a vest is an undershirt, a nappy is a diaper, etc. You get the drift.

But the meaning of the words is easy to learn. What is not as easy to learn is the cultural language usage differences between us and the English. What do I mean by cultural language usage differences? I had a student who was from a rather staid Irish Roman Catholic family whose fiancé was Jewish. The happy couple (still married) had a dinner for both families to meet. My student described it like a great high-powered debate with interruptions, loud banter, and certainly little or no silence. My student was use to this as he had dinner with the family many times before. His parents sat there throughout most of the evening in shock. They entered into the conversation when they could in a calm, if not serene, fashion. Their voices were never raised.

My go to person for all things linguistic is Deborah Tannen, a professor at Georgetown. She wrote an article, “Talking New York”. The high energy Jewish family used a “high involvement conversational style”. My student’s family used a “high considerate conversational style”. Suffice it to say, that the American style of Harry and Meghan would be more “high involvement” whereas the British style and that of the Royal Family would be “high considerate”. These are descriptive categories. One is not better than the other. Different cultures have different assumptions and expectations for use of language.

The royals are more “male” in their exchanges. The male use of language is about maintaining status. The Royals can’t help that their status is high for it is built in. Meghan and Harry are more “female” in their exchanges wanting to share in intimacy with their family. Let’s see how this applies to “trouble talk”. When Meghan raised her concerns about her mental health, the Royals might have been baffled for they may think “well, that’s not a problem for me” which feels like a non-response or putdown as they would make little or no response. Meghan and Harry were looking for a different response like “I am the same way” or “I know how you feel”.

Michael Deacon, a reporter for the Telegraph, wrote an article after the infamous interview with Oprah. He wrote the article as a response to one of the headlines that was shown to show the harsh nature of the British press. One headline was one of his. His anger at being “outed” was due to the fact that the article was written 11 months after the couple announced that they were stepping down from a senior royal role. His article didn’t drive them out. His article was about the age-old observation that America and Britain are two nations divided by a common language.

Tannen would agree with many of Deacon’s points regarding the power of language when expectations are different. As Deacon indicates, “We tend to shy away from emotional language. We are a stiff, socially awkward bunch who communicate via understatement, irony, and sarcasm”. If you want to see what this style looks like watch a Hugh Grant comedy movie. The humor is based in the above fact.

I listed British words and meanings above. Deacon does an analysis of the interview by citing the terms that are used that are emotionally based: humbled, empowered, passionate, inspired, “what was our continued reality going to be?” people she “reached out to”, her gratitude to Oprah for “giving us the space” to talk. Oprah mirrored the same use of language back. She asked Meghan how the Royals would think about “hearing you speak your truth”? Oprah followed up with “What is going on with you internally?” The dominant word in the exchanges in the interview was “sharing”. American speech such as this is more like the “female conversational style” of seeking connection and intimacy. The British feel that this comes across as “cloying” or excessively sweet.

To make my point, I what you to fantasize for a moment that Meghan bares her soul to the Queen and the Queen responds with “What I hear you saying Meghan is_______. I am deeply grateful for your sharing! I am humbled by hearing you speak your truth.” Prince Philip would enter the conversation by waiting so he doesn’t interrupt anyone and declare, “I am inspired by your words and the passion with which you have presented them. Thank you for sharing.” He might even slip in a “Hey, dude, I get it!” as an ode to California.

Words lead to understanding, but you got to make sure you have the right ones. As I indicated in an earlier blog, Meghan and Harry came at their new roles as senior royals who understood the storybook but didn’t have the playbook firmly in their grasp for the playbook is about use of language that leads to understanding not to hurt ache and division.

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