5 Strange Things That Happen to Brits in America

Don't be surprised if someone starts singing to you in a cockney accent. (Disney)

Don’t be surprised if someone starts singing to you in a cockney accent. (Disney)

You know you’re going to stand out a little as a Brit in the U.S., what with the funny accent and the strange culinary tastes, but sometimes it’s difficult to anticipate what else might happen….

1. Being imitated by complete strangers
It’s one thing for friends and co-workers to morph into Dick van Dyke whenever you’re around (although on second thought, knock it off people), but quite another for complete strangers to do so. And yet it happens quite frequently. My last time was in a department store, buying shoes with my mother. Taking the left shoe from me, the (previously American) sales assistant launched into the strangest gender-bending impersonation of Her Majesty as he vanished into the stock room. My mother stared in disbelief, especially when he returned with my size shoe and continued his performance. I would honestly love to know what he thought he was doing.

2. Being credited with a Mensa I.Q.
We’ve discussed this many times at Mind the Gap, but many Americans assume knowledge and intelligence in Brits that isn’t always there. You can keep this charade going even longer if you quote little known British authors, recent U.K. poll results or events from your British past to bolster your tales. Unless you have a fairly broad regional accent, most Americans only hear a “Briddish” accent, unlike Brits themselves who recently voted the Scouse (Liverpool) accent as sounding the least intelligent in the U.K. (Sorry Scousers.)

3. Being forgiven for swearing
Americans generally think our curse words are funny or quaint, if they understand them at all. My favorite word is a mild “sodding” used as an adjective (as in “Where are my sodding keys?”), which I can get away with easily since it’s lost on most Americans. Even words we probably wouldn’t say in the U.K. don’t cause as much offense here—except the C word. It is far more offensive here, and I’d warn fans and habitués against using it until you know your audience.

4. Being asked to speak publicly
I can’t count the times I’ve been handed a memo just before a meeting, with the plea “You read it out. You always sound like you know what you’re talking about.” Whether it’s speaking in corporate meetings, parent volunteer situations or just telling anecdotes in a social gathering, Americans appear to love the British delivery. Obviously tied to the fake I.Q. mentioned above, and if you’re a shy person, you’re going to have to come up with some pretty strong defenses.

5. Being made to repeat everything
You’re half way through saying something and you see “the look” in the American’s eyes. Two-thirds of the way through your point, she often starts smiling. When you finish, she doesn’t respond, then shakes her head slightly and says, “I’m sorry what? I was so busy listening to your accent I didn’t get all of that.” Brits soon learn to assess this situation and stop talking until the listener has returned from the reverie. “The look” can also occur when Brits speak too quickly; it represents confusion or panic rather than pleasure in your accent. You learn early on that slow and steady wins the race, or in this case, makes Brits understandable.

Join @MindTheGap_BBCA on Twitter Wednesday, February 19 at 2 pm ET (11 am PT) using hashtag #MindTheChat to share your bizarre U.S. stories, British expats. Participants could win Sherlock Season 3 on DVD.

See more:
10 Things British Expats Will Miss About the U.K.
10 Ways To Find Other British Expats Near You
8 Instances When You Should Play Up Your Britishness in America

Toni Hargis

Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a Brit who has lived in the USA since 1990. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and children and writes about US/UK matters when not putting out domestic fires. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom, (St. Martin's Press). She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV explaining British things to Americans.

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  • GinnyP

    if I order a bagel with butter at a local bagel chain, I have to repeat myself several times, until the light switch goes off and they suddenly say, “Oh! Buddderrrrrr!!!” One woman behind me in the queue got so infuriated one day at the server who kept saying to me “Huh? I don’t understand”, she yelled “Budderrrr!!! She wants budderrrrr!!!”. This particular one has happened to me on many an occasion, and it’s sometimes the same server!

    • Sal

      I think what often confuses many Americans not used to hearing British accents is the missing “r” sound at the end of words like butter and water. Force yourself to say it when ordering and more than likely you’ll be better understood.

      • http://tonisummershargis.com/ Toni Hargis

        It also helps if you replace the T with something more like a D, but I feel like such a fake when I do that!

        • Michael

          Don’t you guys leave out the T altogether if you can help it?

          • Alan Richardson

            Ah yes, the glottal stop!

          • http://tonisummershargis.com/ Toni Hargis

            Depends where you come from. The glottal stop is more southern (Cockney) in words like that. I have never done it, being from the north.

          • bbdrvr

            I’ve noticed that many Brits pronounce the ‘g’ in places where Americans wouldn’t. For example, “hang on’ sounds like “hang gone” to us.

          • http://tonisummershargis.com/ Toni Hargis

            @bbdvr – So I’ve been sitting here repeating “hang on” for several minutes now. I think it’s a regional thing in the UK and is very pronounced in areas like Birmingham and surrounding towns. My American kids had an English babysitter when they were little and they used to say “Singing” like “Sing-ging” ’cause she was from those parts. LOL

          • bbdrvr

            Yeah, I first noticed it with the Manchester accent, but I’ve heard it from other regions as well.

          • dw

            You mean like this? :) (classic advert/commercial)

      • Alan Richardson

        That’s funny. Iv’e been accused of pronouncing ‘Melinda’ Melinder …

        • http://tonisummershargis.com/ Toni Hargis

          If you listen to most Brits, when there’s a vowel ending (or a W) followed by another vowel, we quite often stick an R in there. Law and Order become Lorand Order, and Pizza and Garlic Bread becomes “pizzerand garlic bread”. My kids think it’s hilarious.

          • dw

            Yes: good old intrusive R.

            I never noticed it when I lived in England, but now when I hear, say, the BBC talk about “Obama-r-administration”, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

          • http://tonisummershargis.com/ Toni Hargis

            Yes, the first time an American told me that we said “idear” instead of “idea” I had to go home and say it a few times in a sentence before I realized he was right.

          • MontanaRed

            It’s a “linking R”. Other languages have equivalents with their own linking sound. French, for instance.

          • erincinco

            Yes! Whenever I hear a newscaster say, “Francois Hollande” it sounds like, “Franswahz HallAHND” and it KILLS me.

            (Internally I’m expecting to hear, “Francoizzzollande” lol)

        • Deebee

          I’ve often found it odd that many Doctor Who fans from the UK not only pronounce “Dalek” as “Darlek,” they even spell it that way, not knowing that it DOESN’T actually have an R in the middle.

      • dw

        I’ve lived here long enough to have learned to pronounce the “R” when I ask for water, butter, etc. The only people who still have trouble understanding me are non-native English speakers (usually native Spanish speakers). When that happens, I have to go full waaah-drrrr.

        • MontanaRed

          In a twist on that theme, a Canadian friend told the story of travelling through the Australian Outback. He and his buddy stopped in a tiny town when their car ran hot and went into a local shop to ask for “wadd-rr”. The girl behind the counter looked confused, replying, “What?!” They had to repeat themselves several times until the light bulb finally switched on, and she said, relieved, “Oh! You want “wah-tah!”

        • Kathy Wentzel

          Unless you’re in Boston. In Boston, we put buttah on our bagels and we drink wattah.

          • bbdrvr

            Interesting side-note: I was reading a book aloud to my kids a while back and doing the character accents as well as I could. At one point, I was reading a conversation between a young Londoner and a Texan. I kept getting the two accents muddled up – and what came out was an almost flawless Boston accent, which I could never have done intentionally.

      • Ginnyp

        The funny thing about this is that there are only two choices for the bagel: butter or cream cheese. I’m obviously not saying “cream cheese” :)

        • Moon

          No Lox?

      • rocketjnyc

        Maybe outside the Metro NY area. But we drop our r’s all the time (and add them where they don’t belong like pizza becoming pizzer).

      • Kathy Wentzel

        Unless you’re in Boston. In Boston, we’re quite used to the missing “r” sound…lol!

        • http://markduddridge.wordpress.com Mark Duddridge

          I’m not sure they’re Boston accents, but one of the reasons I enjoy the “This Old House” shows is that there’s plenty of accents that remind me of the accent where I grew up, near Cardiff!

          • citydog

            Oh, they’re Boston all right. :)

      • Amanda

        Apparently, you’ve never heard a Mainer. Most of the natives don’t pronounce the “r”. It sorta turns into a soft “ah” sound. Most movies have people doing the accents (both the common accent and the most famous but dying “Down Eastern accent) all wrong, or so overly done that it’s no longer funny.

  • ukhousewifeusa

    I always get asked to read things out loud. I like it! Some people only come to my fitness classes so they can hear me speak, apparently!

    • http://tonisummershargis.com/ Toni Hargis

      That is so flattering!

    • MontanaRed

      Guilty secret: I find British accents soothing, including the regional and national variations. Listening to audiobooks narrated in a British accent (not necessary BY a Brit, mind you) is calming.

  • teena

    When I lived in England and people would discover I was raised in Alabama and Georgia USA they would inevitably ask me to “talk like Scarlet O’Hara”. Once in Forfars Bakery, after my 3 or 4th attempt to comply with their request, with the ladies behind the counter saying no no no “more southern” It finally dawned on me…… Ahhh I think what you are looking for is a fake Southern Accent…. After all, Vivian Leigh was British…

  • Clare

    #1 is SO annoying. I’ve threatened colleagues with HR before. haha soon stopped

    • MontanaRed

      I do sympathize. Note, however, that it has been a mark of prestige in the USA for decades for (male, probably) executives to have a British secretary, solely for image purposes.

  • Alan Richardson

    #1 – I avoided talking to people I didn’t know unless I had to when I was first here because I hated my accent being ‘taken in vain’.

    #5 – The reverse for me. I had to make a California girl (Valley) repeat ‘Hawthorne’ several times before I could decipher what she meant. On the other foot I had a hard time making myself understood when I asked for milk. Wasn’t quick witted enough to ask for ‘cow juice’. Apparently John Simon wrote that he had the same trouble in “Paradigms Lost”

  • I’m a Brit but not English

    I hate that you assume “Brit” means “English”. Brit includes Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales too

    • http://tonisummershargis.com/ Toni Hargis

      Being from the border country (ie. right next to Scotland), and having lived in Wales, I’m acutely aware of that. Not quite sure where my (nonexistent) assumption is evident in the post. I understand that you might feel defensive about this, but you’re seeing something that isn’t there.

    • Jwb52z

      I would have thought people outside England wouldn’t want to be called British or English when they are Scottish or Irish or Welsh.

      • http://tonisummershargis.com/ Toni Hargis

        English people often refer to themselves as English rather than British.

        • KG88

          The same can be said for the Welsh–My husband hates being called British.

  • frozen01

    Re: #1 – There may not be any thought behind it whatsoever. Some people mimic accents without even knowing that they’re doing it. I think it has to do with personality type. When two people socialize, it’s very common for each person to make slight, or sometimes somewhat drastic, changes to their speaking style, stance, mood, etc., to better “match up” with the person with whom they’re holding a conversation. The more empathetic a person is, the more likely they are to adopt the characteristics of their social partner.
    A person in a sales position is more likely to be that type, because people who can “connect” with their customers tend to make more sales and/or inspire customer loyalty (especially in the US, where that type of thing is pushed very, very vigorously). But again, it’s more instinctual than something a person does on purpose.

    • expatmum

      I’ve heard this before and although if I spend enough time with my southern in-laws I might start twanging just a little, it’s hard to believe the leap from a mid-west to a full on British accent is unconscious. And, if as you say “there may not be any thought behind it whatsoever”, if you’re working in sales, there bloody well should be. Would that guy have done the same if the accent had been Bangladeshi or Bolivian rather than British? Probably not. But – probably reading too much into it.

    • Sandra J

      My psychology of language class studied that: matching another’s accent, style, and pacing. I do it unconsciously and sometimes have to correct myself for fear of insulting the person I’m speaking with. But, I think shoe guy just thought he was being witty.

    • erincinco

      I DO THIS! I spent several years as an inbound customer service rep and I just learned along the way that if I happened to “match” my caller’s speed, syntax, accent – but not TOO close – the call would go very smoothly.

      Then I spent some formative time in England and came back with that weird Madonna-clipped British English thing she had when she was married to Guy Ritchie. My dad called me out on it when I returned home and I didn’t have an idea I was even doing it.

      Now, I work for an Englishman and I have to purposefully concentrate on NOT speaking to him with a clip. It really does just happen, and I’d be mortified if he thought I was mocking him or something.

    • Deebee

      I think it’s because I’ve watched so much British TV that it’s imprinted on my brain, so I find that when I’m around people with British accents it becomes contagious. Just the other day I rode up in an elevator with a group of Brits, and when I asked to be let off, it came out of my mouth with a full-on British accent. I didn’t mean to do that, it just happened.

    • JR48

      Amen to that. As an adult, I find myself immediately being alert for that whenever I spend any time with anyone with what is for me, an accent. But it was particularly bad when I was young. Spent some time with some southern cousins for an afternoon, and by the end of it, I had a twang.

      I’m much better at avoiding it these days, but I just go there if I’m not thinking about it. The same way like I would start harmonizing with a singing sibling.

      However, in the aforementioned example, I think that the salesperson was just trying to be funny…while failing.

  • Dev

    I grew up with British Grandparents, watching British tv shows. So even though I have an American accent when I’m exposed to a British accent I start to pick it up. I feel bad because sometimes I think strangers who are British think I’m mocking them when I’m not doing it on purpose. Lol.

  • Wight Fox

    When I was first here, 30 years ago, I was asked if we wore shoes in England…

    • http://tonisummershargis.com/ Toni Hargis

      Argh – hilarious!

    • jenjun66

      I moved here in the late 1950′s and started school in the US in 4th grade in NY. The mother of one of my classmates asked me if I had ever worn shoes before and if we had electricity in our home in London! That was bad enough but not nearly as jaw dropping as the adult who commented that I spoke the language very well for someone who had just moved here!!!

    • :)

      lol i was asked if we had cows in england, and if we showered and if everyone was left handed (I’m a leftie) and after I mentioned I’d been to Paris 6 times they asked me where in France London was…

  • Michael Mills

    When I was young and stationed in East Anglia, I found that when was talking with the locals, my accent would morph into a quasi Brit accent. It wasn’t a conscious act and I felt terrible whenever it happened. When I came back Stateside, I was told by friends that I still had that accent – a year later.

    • erincinco

      Me, too. :) I spent some time on RAF Lakenheath. brought a bit of the accent home with me, and it still pops up occasionally, 15 years later.

  • maryt

    Being told to “Speak English” when my born English was not understood!!!!……

  • bbdrvr

    The cure for all of this is to have more Americans watch British television. These days, it usually takes me a while to even realize that someone is speaking with a British accent, and while I can’t claim to recognize every regional nuance, I can hear the major differences between them (London, Liverpool, Manchester, Welsh, Highland or Lowland Scots, etc.).

  • fernaig

    A little off topic, but amusing. I asked an American woman married to a man from the UK where her husband was from. “‘oodersfield” she replied in the weirdest northern accent I’ve ever heard.

    I’m used to being asked to record everyone’s voice mail message. I was even asked to record a voice over for a webinar at my husband’s company. And I’ll take the extra IQ points it adds any day :)

    And I’m an expert at the American ‘waaahdderrr’ after months of being stared at in restaurants.

    • http://markduddridge.wordpress.com Mark Duddridge

      Asking for water is my bugbear, even after having been here for 13+ years! *lol*

    • LF

      I wouldn’t say ‘waaahdderrr’ is a wholly American thing, depends on the region. I’m from NJ/Philly and we pronounce it “wooder”. I’ve moved to Edinburgh for postgrad study and was pleasantly surprised that the wait staff actually understood me.

  • Question Evol Proj

    For point #2, I heard an American on Justin Brierley’s “Unbelievable?” radio show make a quip that he will be presumed to be less intelligent than his Brit debate opponent.

  • Ashton L Cline

    When I was I was in Britain, I picked up a super mild accent. Muchch to my mother’s dismay, but I watch so much British tv that it was natural to me. I understood everyone and got us out of a terrible “vite-a-min” vs “veet-a-min” confrontation ourfirst night in town.

  • Canadafan

    i heard a man w/ a British Accent in Starbucks … i could have left

    but i enjoyed listening to him speak. i used to go to Canada and get made fun of my accent, so i adapted little things and the making fun of me stopped but now ppl think i’m from Michigan and not Chicago. I’ll listen to any accent … I love it

  • DannyJane

    I was married to a Brit for 18 years. If you’re visiting the U.S. expect to be asked where you come from. This also holds true for Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans.

  • Jeanette318

    I’m a Brit living in the US and the C word is still very vulgar and unfortunately used by many Brits, including women!

  • drunkel206

    When I get drunk I talk like Lister. I’m a Yank through and through, but it just comes out. Also, might be cause I watch too much BBC America… #anlgophile

  • Dee Kottkamp

    Luckily I watch a lot of BBCA so I am usually okay with the accent but some of the word differences trip me up. I would really love a list of British swear words and the closest American translation. Just so I can use them correctly.

  • Kate

    As an American living in the UK for many years, this piece and the comments below are hilariously cathartic to read. “The Look” happens over here too, I am constantly having to repeat myself. And I am also subject to the broad assumptions about Americans… it’s just that they’re not nearly as pleasant as everyone assuming you’re really clever.

  • charltonlaw

    My first visit to the US I went into a Post Office to ask for a stamp. the lady gazed at me, asked me to repeat it and then said ‘I love your accent.’ Then in Iowa i saw some odd writing and asked the cashier what language it was. She said ‘Norwegian’ because a lot of us are from there – then she asked ‘and what language are you speaking?’ …. umm, English!
    In England the Irish can get away with any swear word they like and we don’t mind
    The US is one of the few places on earth where speaking in an English accent makes you more popular..

  • Robert Braun

    Just a few thoughts on this. I may sometimes be seen as an imitating when it’s a sub-conscious response. I’ve lived in many different areas of the U.S.A. and have always quickly adopted the local accent and lingo. When exposed to an accent for even a brief conversation, I will often find myself imitating it unintentionally. This can even occur from reading a book that has dialogue written to imitate an accent. So some of the imitation you experience may not be due to crass behavior.
    It has long been said that an expert is a foreigner with a briefcase. Most accents will cause one to make wild baseless assumptions about the speakers intelligence.
    Most Americans are pretty casual about swearing and I’ve only noticed it getting more permissive over the years.
    I wasn’t aware of the public speaking thing, but it seems obvious if you keep in mind the “expert is a foreigner with a briefcase” concept. It makes everything you say, especially in a presentation type setting, sound authoritative, bypassing most skepticism. I’ve read about Americans in China who are hired by companies to attend business functions in order to convey the impression that their company American employees (even pretend CEOs sometimes) and is thus being run by experts.
    Some people are just not very good at understanding accents. This is not limited to America. Some Americans have trouble understanding other Americans local accents.
    So while all of this happens to Brits in America, it also happens to anyone who visits an area with a different local accent.

    • http://beautifulsynthesis.com Andrea

      Regarding difficulty between various American accents: Definitely! I worked in call center one summer and talked to a lady who I was having terrible trouble understanding. Then it hit me that she had the same accent (Pennsylvania Dutch) that my grammy has, and instantly understood every word.

      Also, singers tend to imitate accents, because that’s how we blend as a choir. I went on a choir tour of Australia, and it took us less than a week before the entire choir was using an Aussie accent. It was bizarre.

  • http://beautifulsynthesis.com Andrea

    There’s a lady in the choir I sing with who is originally from Great Britain – she’s been in the States for over 40 years, but has (understandably) kept her accent. Our director makes her read *everything*. (I s’pose she could always turn him down…?)

    I’m one of those who may start imitating someone’s accent, though I should point out that: 1) it’s not intentional 2) It’s not just Brits. Imitation has been a major part of my vocal/choral training since high school, and after awhile it’s just instinct. I’ve adopted Canadian and Aussie accents without realizing it.

  • Lorraine

    This discussion is fascinating to me. My dad was in the army, and we lived in various places around the US, including Hawaii. I was about 4 years old when we moved there. My mom said that it wasn’t long before I started talking with a Polynesian accent. I lived in the NYC area for less than a month and returned home with an accent. I never understood how this happens, and it completely unintentional.

  • Mary Rhoat

    Of course Americans love your accent and all it represents. You are the only people from another country that know the English language better than we do. By the way thanks for – The Beatles, The Who, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, The Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Police, Winnie the Pooh, Mary Poppins, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes and more recently Kipper, Harry Potter, Top Gear and Atlantis.
    You arrive in America with more class, sophistication and brains, than our average guest. Not like the ones that overstay their welcome and end up on our government assistance programs (from my tax dollar). Then they complain about how unfair the US is and refuse to learn English. So I have to spend my money and time learning their stupid language, just so I can order a damn hamburger con papas fritas.
    As far as I know you Brits don’t want to blow up our buildings, sell our kids drugs or start crime families. You also know how to bath and use deodorant. Maybe your not all geniuses as the BP spill in the Gulf proved, but you are miles ahead of our average immigrants. I probably would not have passed high school literature class with Macbeth and The Canterbury Tales if it were not for the help of a British foreign exchange student who sat near me. Thank-you Jonathan where ever you are.
    These are some of the reasons why we love you and your accent. Don’t change and visit often. I hope we will always be friends across the pond.