Americans believe the British are naturally smarter – and I’m happy to let them
Just last week I was explaining national stereotypes to my 11-year-old. Probably best not to repeat these things at school, I told her, picturing my daughter putting her hand up and declaring to the class: “My mother says Americans are too loud and that their portion sizes are grotesque.” But often – not always – I pointed out, there’s more than a grain of truth to stereotypes.
Americans do tend to be loud – or louder than us, at any rate. Their portion sizes are indeed grotesque. Italians are hilariously passionate and dramatic (any football game will confirm that). Parisians (not to be confused with all French people) can be eye-wateringly rude, although they take great offence when this is pointed out. Hence the column inches in the French media devoted to the national affront that is Emily in Paris.
Ask an American what they think of us, and they will reel off the following list of positive and negative stereotypes. We drink tea and talk about the weather endlessly (true). We have terrible teeth (also true, certainly in comparison to a nation with orthodontists and laser teeth-whiteners on speed-dial). We are “polite” (an outdated perception, I fear), and “super smart”.
Why do they think we’re smart? Because of the way we talk. A study by Rutgers University in New Jersey confirmed this at the weekend. Drawing on 125 segments of everyday conversation and work discussions – 70 segments in British English and 55 segments in American English – the findings revealed that the word “right” was at the root of this belief.
Whereas Americans used the word to confirm that they understood what someone was talking about, Britons – who used “right” far more in conversation – were more likely to use it when information was new or relevant, thereby giving the impression that we had prior knowledge of what was being discussed, even when we were clueless. Interesting, right?
As someone who divides her time between London and LA, I’ve been capitalising on the smart Brit stereotype for years. The moment I reach border control, I’ll find myself poshing-up my accent, to the point that I sound like a cross between a Pathé News reader and Carson from Downton Abbey. And watching an American waiter or shop assistant’s face lift with awe when I come out with “I’ll have the Caesar salad please” or “Do you take Apple Pay?” is one of my greatest daily pleasures. Although it can get embarrassing when they ask you to “say that again”, sometimes calling over a colleague to share in the joy.
But it’s the quaint British archaisms that actually have them swooning, which is why only on US soil have I ever been known to come out with words like “fuddy-duddy” and “willy-nilly”, always guaranteed to get you a squeal of delight.
Some of our linguistic habits can prove confusing Stateside, however. “Sorry,” used superfluously, almost as a form of punctuation, when we’ve obviously done nothing wrong, always prompts concern – possibly a manager being called. “Terribly” can only ever raise alarm, no matter what the context. “Quite” will only ever mean “very” to our transatlantic friends. “Chips” are crisps, not fries. “Mate” is just a very odd noise to be making out loud, and if you ask for a “jumper” in a clothes shop, you’ll be presented with a series of adult-sized baby grows.
At this point you simply bare your yellowing, misaligned teeth in the widest smile you can muster, say: “Sorry, I’m being a nincompoop. I was actually after a sweater” – and watch them close their eyes in ecstasy, one hand to their hearts.