We become so used to what we say and the things we do, that we rarely stop to think about them. We accept that within our culture and the people around us, we’ll be understood. One thing that travelling has taught me is to never assume that I’ll be understood, even when speaking the same language.
I have had so many instances of being misunderstood that I couldn’t possibly relay them all, and what I found surprisingly difficult was trying to explain what I meant, or what I wanted to someone who speaks the same language, fluently. Firstly of course, there’s accent. In the south of USA, my Australian accent was deemed amusing, and it’s not even broad. I was often asked by curious wait staff where I was from, and when I asked them to guess, it was always, England. A few times Jim and I would notice the waitresses hanging around closely, cleaning and recleaning the same tables, until one of them would be brave enough to come and ask where I was from. We’d laugh over the girls admitting that they just loved listening to me speak, and were all trying to guess where I was from. I found their accents just as endearing, and the broad southern accent is probably my favourite American accent of all. It’s so musical.
Jim and I visited an old museum in North Carolina and I spent a few minutes chatting with an older southern gentleman in his cowboy hat. He was incredibly polite, and rather than tell me he couldn’t understand me, he simply said, “ma’am?” every so often, which I found utterly wonderful. That one word, presented as a question, was all I needed to slow down and think of different ways to express myself. But ordering food was another story in itself.
Australians are lazy speakers—we clip the end of our words off, modify as much as we can, and don’t pronounce R’s on the end of our words. Everything ends in an ‘uh/ah’ sound. My American son-in-law used to say to us, “What is that sound you make? My mouth can’t even make that sound.” So at any type of restaurant, when asking for water, we say ‘wartah’, or if we want butter, we ask for ‘buttah’. Americans simply cannot comprehend that, and understandably so when you consider how differently we say those words. And then there’s the entirely different pronunciations such as parmesan versus ‘parmigian’, or aluminium versus ‘aluminum’. I especially struggled with cuts of beef— at a steakhouse I want a scotch fillet, but Americans call it prime rib. I ended up having to ask what body part the meat was cut from so that I could order steak. And what on earth is broiled? Grilled. It’s grilled. I thought broiling was boiling something in water and then baking it to crisp it up. I know— totally clueless. Restaurant experiences can be quite the challenge.
Then there’s supermarkets. In Alaska I wanted to make some good old Aussie grub for our hosts; meat pies and a trifle. Firstly, there were no sheets of puff pastry. Pastry comes in a large piece and you have to roll it out— lucky that Grandma was back at the house with her rolling pin. No such luck for the trifle. I wanted custard and couldn’t find it anywhere. I asked a store attendant where I could find the custard. She looked at my mouth as I repeated myself, “Can you please show me where the custard is?” Total confusion crossed her face and she said, “I don’t know what you’re saying.” Okay then. I’ll make a pavlova instead.
I learnt pretty quickly in America that when you need to go to the bathroom, you don’t simply ask “where’s the toilet?” like we do here in Australia. We call bathrooms, toilets, and Americans call them restrooms. The look of horror I received when asking for the toilet was enough to remind me to call them restrooms from then on. I also learnt that what we call a holiday, they call a vacation. A holiday in the US is a ‘holy day’, like Christmas, not two weeks away at the nearest caravan park. A carpark is a parking lot, a boot is a trunk, a shopping centre is a mall, and the list goes on. Same language, different words, and oftentimes, different meanings we need to consider. What we consider rude here may not be so in the US, and vice versa.I think that the ultimate take away of it all is that we need to expect that there will be differences that can be tricky to learn. My attitude used to be that I am Australian, and I speak how I speak, but I now see how silly that is. If I want to be heard in another country it only makes sense to learn to communicate in a way that will help others understand me, and that means adapting. My accent will remain with me, and I’m happy about that as it’s very much a part of who I am, but I will go to the store at the mall, use the restrooms, put my groceries in the trunk of my car, pull out of the parking lot into the gas station, and pump gas.