Stars and ... cripes! How to talk to Americans

Stars and ... cripes! How to talk to Americans

Five years ago, freshly arrived in the US of A with a plan to call San Francisco home for a spell, the Australian Consul General took me aside for a quiet word.

“Be aware,” he cautioned, “that you will constantly be perceived as arrogant. Australians don't have the respect for authority that Americans take for granted – and our directness scares them. Try and be gentle.”

Americans love us, but we're scary.

Americans love us, but we're scary.Credit:iStock

I vowed to approach my new American friends with deference for their effusive turn of phrase, and an eager ear for Americanisms to temper my natural Aussie bluntness. Five years wiser, I have a swag of local takeaways that would make a linguist slaver. So lean in for the catbird seat on some hella bunk verbiage.

Tall means small


Navigating Starbucks-speak is the first challenge of the day. When a country's largest coffee chain uses three different languages to describe its joe, you know you're dealing with a complex culture. “Tall”, it transpires, means “small”. “ Venti” is Italian for 20 (ounces, as it turns out). Only in America would 2.5 cups of coffee be considered a “medium”. If you like your java by the bucket, it's “grande” with some Spanish swagger.

In order to herald your intent in truly genial fashion, you must take a sentence to verbally frame your action. That coffee, for instance, needs to be eased into being. “You know what? I'm feeling … a coffee. I'm gonna order a coffee,” you need to announce to the world in general before any move to order can take place.

It's no wonder an Australian bounding up to the counter and barking, “double espresso please” with harsh vowels and no preamble is a shock to the local ear. They love us, but we're scary.

Make it a double

The Yanks like to double-dip when it comes to food nomenclature. “Tunafish” confirms that, yep, it's marine alright, and not, say, an exotic variety of chicken; “sodapop” double-checks for bubbles. “Tinfoil”? Metal, for sure. Not much scope for misunderstanding there, then.

But it gets trickier: “hamburger” refers to minced meat, while the “burger” is actually the rissole; “broil” means grill while “grill” means to barbeque, and “barbeque” is very specifically about ribs and sauce, so don't use it lightly. A “biscuit” is a savoury side for those ribs. “Cookies” are the sweet treats.

The “drugstore” is a legit chemist, and there is no such thing as a newsagency. Newspapers sit in randomly placed boxes. And doctors for lady issues, for reasons nobody can adequately explain to me, are referred to as a string of letters: O.B.G.Y.N. Um, righto then.

Just don't dew it

Then there's the pronunciation crossover, for which we'll circle back on our old friend, the tunafish. Go with “toona” rather than “tune-a”. Oh, and use “doo” for your casual observance on a cool morning, “what's up with that crazy dew?”, lest you induce horrified silence and sideways stares. Are you feeling my pain? Don't dew it. Don't mention Smiggle, that shop full of rubbers for children. Or the thongs your kids wear. Cue more furtive glances at the weirdo Aussie with the offspring who wear … what, exactly?

However, I'm also truly fond of some brilliant, “evergreen” business-speak I have learned in my adopted home. “Freemium” is the new buzzword for those dotcoms providing quality free stuff to the public, with the extra specials stashed “behind the paywall”. The results can be “hella bunk” or totally “ratchet” if you listen to the “NorCal” teens where I live.

Verbiage for traction

“Healthful” touts the benefits of vitamin-infused water, “catastrophize” is a verb and “verbiage” has ironically been adopted by some as a term for desirable wording rather than excess blather. A warm-down is “active recovery”, and office managers are acutely aware of maintaining “office hygiene”, via those practices that are necessary for smooth day-to-day running but not sufficient to actually progress anything or give a business “traction”.

Everybody is “reaching out” these days with storytelling, and it's beneficial to use humble terms like “blessed” and “grateful”, and to refer gently to money in terms of “purchasing” rather than buying or paying.

Riffing with new workmates in one of those free-pouring local bars? Just insert “that's what she said” after pretty much any sentence and you are in with a universal American nudge-nudge.

No i-dear

And just when you think you've got the cadence of interpersonal communication sorted comes a good ol' American curveball (that'd be a googly back home) in the form of email etiquette.

What may take several sentences to say to your face, will be emailed in short, sharp jabs, and without any preface.

When the curt emails began rolling in, it seemed clear that I must have mortally offended most of the people I was working with. No “dear”, no “hi” or “hello”; in fact, no pleasantries of any kind. No friendly sign-off, either. Viz: “Sally – blah blah blah – John.” Or even no sign-off at all.

My Aussie hubby and I spent hours trying to read between the lines and understand how our communication could have inspired such brusque replies. Finally, consultation with a local pal (not a mate, that means something else entirely here) revealed that Americans barely say "Hi" in written communication and NEVER say “dear”. Emails are business only – don't waste letters if you don't have to. “Dear” is for love letters. Period.

So, with these words of advice, sally forth and reach out to this verbose, yet friendly nation. And remember: you are MORE than welcome.

Sally works between San Francisco and Sydney to track, record and be inspired by the latest trends in innovative technology and sustainable design covering vehicles, buildings and products.

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