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Culture shock

I’m generally quite an awkward person and often tend to say the wrong thing. Add the fact that I’m a South African living in the UK, and the potential for conversational misdemeanours is frighteningly high. This has, on many occasions, resulted in some interesting and humorous situations. I hope that recalling to mind some of my awkward encounters will bring at least a little bit of entertainment to your day. I hereby extend an invitation to laugh at me, since I have, after all, had to learn to laugh at myself. Or perhaps I’m not the only one who has had the following kinds of experiences, and you’ll be able to identify, and laugh, with me.

You would think that a person whose mother tongue is English would find it relatively easy to understand the English language in England, but you would be wrong. English in the UK has many times been the cause of some highly confusing situations. Like Americans, we too use the word ‘pants’ to describe the outer garment covering your legs. Fortunately, in the beginning of my move to the UK, I didn’t know that many English people, so my understanding that the meaning of pants in South Africa is very different to the meaning of pants in the UK, occurred before it could lead to any hugely embarrassing miscommunication problems. However I do remember some confused or slightly embarrassed looks on occasion.

There aren’t that many words in the English language that I dislike, but ‘trousers’ is one of them. When I think of trousers, I think of brown, corduroy pants, possibly with braces, generally worn on men over the age of seventy. I just wouldn’t use the word trousers to describe the pants I’m wearing today. Oh look, there’s a super model taking on the catwalk in trousers. Er…No. I have been reminded on more than one occasion by my England-born friends that I am living in England, and therefore I have to get with the programme. Or leave, basically (I imagine that’s how they’d end the sentence if they were the blunt sort). While I do agree with that logic in most cases, the word trousers is just not one of them. Therefore I will continue to try and find my way around using that word wherever possible.

Another language-related peculiarity unique to the English, which I still find difficult to accept, is the greeting, ‘alright?’ Would you even call it a greeting? After nearly four years in this country, I still have no idea of the intention behind the statement/question ‘Alright?’ Is it really a question? Are you really asking me how I am? Because still to this day, my reply is, ‘fine thank you, and you?’ and I either receive an awkward response to my response (because my response in the first place wasn’t expected) or an equally awkward silence (it’s definitely awkward for me, anyway). I have vaguely worked out the meaning behind ‘alright?’ but there’s a good chance I’m wrong. I think it’s sort of like an equivalent to a ‘hello’, and the best thing I can do in this situation is come back with another ‘alright’ in response, but without the change of intonation at the end implying a question. However, when I’ve attempted to answer this way in the past, I wonder if I’m seen as rude, or whether the person extending an ‘alright?’ to me was in fact expecting a different/nicer response. All in all, I find this ‘greeting system’, if that’s what it is, highly confusing, and will try in future to be the first person to kick off the greeting process before I can even approach that beginning initial state of confusion.

Something else that baffles me are the terms used around eating. It seems that every Brit eats breakfast and lunch, but what they do after that is greatly mystifying. Apparently ‘tea’, in some instances, refers to more than just a cup of tea. In fact, there may be a complete absence of liquid tea in this instance, since it actually relates to an entire meal. I’ve discovered that tea can often refer to the meal being eaten in the evening, and can sometimes be followed by another meal or snack later that on. In South Africa, we have your regular three meals and the last would is usually called ‘supper’, but in the UK, apparently if you’re eating supper, you’re posh.

On the subject of posh… just the other night, my housemate and I (both South African) wondered what exactly it was that made an English person ‘posh’. We mentioned vague identifying factors, such as background, wealth, fashion sense and accent. The posh English are intriguing characters, with their brightly coloured trousers, special schools and fancy accents.

And talking about ‘fancy’, I used to believe the word had just one meaning – something expensive or sophisticated. But moving to the UK has taught me that fancy has other meanings too, including ‘attracted to’ or ‘would you like’. “Do you fancy him?” “Fancy a drink?” “Fancy a tea?”

And, back to tea (you knew it was coming). I just love how the English are obsessed with tea. In this way (and many more), I feel at home. I first fell in love with tea as a pre-teen; and I fell hard. To save me making the journey to the kitchen and back, I simply filled up our teapot and took it with me to the living room to drink all on my lonesome. By the time I was nearing the end of high school, my love for tea had continued to deepen, much to my mother’s exasperation. When I was studying for our exams, the marks of which we would use to enter university, she wasn’t very pleased on one day finding the kettle missing. She knew I had something to do with it – I usually did – and called up to me to ask me where it was. I sheepishly responded that it was right under my desk, next to my stained tea cup. It just seemed easier that way. It was soon after incidents such as this when, during a visit to my doctor, and in his explaining the potential causes of my anaemia, my mother interjected something to the lines of – “I think it’s got something to do with all this tea”. She was determined to find a connection between my tea drinking habits and my anaemia. She did indeed manage to get some sort of evidence from the doctor, or a sentence taken out of context perhaps, which she later used at frequent intervals to try and curb me of my “tea addiction”. Alas, now that I live in the UK, I can drink all the tea I want and never risk being judged.

I could probably go on for a while, but I’ll end with one more language-related confusion-causing phrase. Often, I will be conversing with one of my English friends when something similar to the following will occur:

Me: But how did you get there?

British friend: Well, we took the ferry, didn’t we?

To which I shake my head. I don’t know. Did you? How would I know? I don’t get it. And that’s happened on multiple occasions, with a rhetorical type question from my English friend, said in a way that implies I should definitely know the answer. I don’t know if it’s something obvious – something I should know – or if it’s some manner of speaking that I just don’t understand. Either way, there is clearly a lack of understanding on my end. And this, I think, has been the general theme of all of the above.

I could go on about the difference between chips and crisps, the correct usage of ‘please’, the art of queuing and many other uniquely English idiosyncrasies, but I think there’s only so much one can take. This month, I’ll be visiting Glasgow and Dublin for the first time, exploring more of the UK. With this, comes plenty more opportunities for awkwardness, because figuring out the differences in meaning with an accent I can understand is one thing, but doing the same with thicker accents is that much more difficult. Fortunately I have learnt a coping mechanism for this situation, and all other aforementioned awkward situations: when in doubt, smile, nod when the moment feels right, and laugh when they’re laughing.


  • BRILLIANT, Margot! ‘Brilliant,’ in the states means exceedingly intelligent, yet that word comes to mind as often used by the British to mean, ‘well done or good work.’ As I read the work of the authors from the UK, I must admit there are times when I am perplexed.
    In the states we end many words with, ‘IZE’ … those words get edited to ‘ISE.’ (A friend reading a WMW piece of mine asked me why I misspelled, ‘traumatize?’I hadn’t thought that I had!! lol)

  • Margot says:

    Yes, brilliant is definitely another one! I’ve even started using it myself. I must admit that there are some English phrases that I have fallen in love with, lovely being my absolute favourite! (or favorite in your case :) )

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