Beyond Borders

A dummy's guide to offending Americans

2011-02-11 11:01

Jean Barker

"Well, I really don't appreciate..."

You have never. And I mean never - ever - experienced the power of tone to convey meaning as you will the first time you hear these seemingly innocuous words coming from the mouth of a pissed-off Valley Girl.

Don't let their polite choice of words lead you to believe that Americans are harmless. They're not - just ask the Vietnamese, most of South America, the Palestinians, Iraqis, Afghans... you get the joke, probably. But Americans really don't appreciate this sort of analysis, I find.

Look at it like this: If you play a word association game in South Africa and say "Military" the person will probably respond "invasion". If you say "Military" here they'll say "heroes". Remember how surprised we all were when US country fans "overreacted" to the Dixie Chicks' comments about Bush after 911? Well having spent a few months in America, I'd be pretty scared to say what they did even now, even just for shits and giggles.

The line between humour and getting yourself killed is a fine one. I can see the war room scene, a few years ago:

Hey, how about "I really don't appreciate that"... could you put that in the speech?

No, Mr President, that's risky, pronunciation-wise.

I'm the president! It's my job to make pronunciations on important issues!


...and hands offa my Jesus

And then there's religion. Apart from Islam, which most Americans know very little about (and more than they want to know), religion is off-limits for criticism or humour. People don't get offended as much as genuinely hurt by hilarious comments about their faith.

I learned this one day while browsing in a bookstore. I wandered very far, very far, over to an aisle over land and sea, where I came upon a shelf labelled "Christian Fiction".

"Christian fiction", I said out loud to myself, forgetting there were non-agnostic strangers at my elbow. "Hello...Tautology alert?"

I still feel bad. It was like telling a three year old that there was no Santa. Not only was I crazy. I was being mean. The wide eyes. The quivering lip.

...and hands off my football

I learned this the hard way: Americans are very sensitive about football. They "invented" it. They don't like it mentioned that it's derived from real football any more than they like you saying jazz is international. And you better not call real football "real football". It's "soccer".

If you do hurt a football fan's feeling, it won't matter how much you say "But I love the clothes! I love them! It's awesome! Gold spandex is so hot... Friday Night Lights? I adore Friday Night Lights. The series. Not the movie..." Nobody will invite you to watch the Superbowl with them if you're mean about football players.

You know how there's that joke that American men think about football players during sex?

It's not a joke.

Mind the gulf

I sometimes really miss being understood (and misunderstood) by my fellow South Africans.

I'm serious when I say that navigating the cultural chasm - one that seemed invisible when I was at home in South Africa but now yawns like the black hole of certain deportation - is hardest when it comes to humour.

I love America. It's impossible not to fall in love with a country so big, so big-hearted, so entertaining and well, so damn funny. But sometimes it's hard to tell whether they're going to be laughing with me or, well...not at all.

- Jean is studying to be a famous screenwriter you've never heard of in California, USA. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here.

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