Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Three of Benny's reasons for not wanting to live in the U.S. boil down to U.S. English being different

You may have recently read Benny's post slamming the U.S. for a bunch of stuff. While I agree with some of it (prices including tax are way more user friendly) and disagree with some of it (Americans hardly have a monopoly on stupid stereotypes—no, I have never owned any guns and, no, I never eat at McDonalds), I've no interest in wading into those debates on this language-learning blog, but I was pretty surprised to see a well-versed language learner like Benny fail so hard in his attitude toward a few things that are clearly linguistic issues.

Let's go through those points.

Below I've used the numbering found on Benny's list, but I've reworded the titles to better encapsulate his points.

2. Americans use the word "awesome" too much and Americans use of phrasing skews things to be more positive than they are

Every language has its overused words. In Brazil, everything seems to be legal ("cool"). In Japan, it's all 凄い sugoi ("awesome"). Do these words lose some of their original oomph when constantly used? Sure; legal comes off as closer to "OK" at times, and sugoi gets toned down to just "good" in some cases. But to complain about this, you basically need to set some arbitrary linguistic point as "the right meaning", label anything else as wrong, and not accept that language changes over time and space. Benny seems to have set European English as his standard, and his complaint is pretty much that American English doesn't match the standard.

The same thing applies to Americans' supposedly overly positive phrasing. I never have any trouble figuring out how someone's doing when I ask them in America, so it sounds like Benny just hasn't gotten accustomed to U.S. English yet. "Great" in the U.S. might equate to Benny's "good", and so on for all the other examples he cites, but it's a vocab use question and not some malicious cultural tendency to obfuscate about how Americans really feel.

My favorite example of this not-saying-what-you-mean-according-to-foreigners thing is in Japanese. If a Japanese person says 考えておきます kangaete okimasu ("I'll think about it"), what they almost always mean is "no", but don't want to say that directly to you. However, everyone understands what that means and no one thinks twice about it—except for foreigners who aren't in the loop yet.

9. Americans use "I'm Irish" to mean "I'm Irish-American

This is another vocab use issue, which Benny himself notes when he says "I use country adjectives more restrictively than Americans do". In the context of the States, where there are relatively few straight-up foreigners but almost everyone is an immigrant or has ancestors that came from some other country, saying "I'm Irish" and meaning "I'm Irish-American" pretty much never creates any confusion.

3. Americans smile too much

What if I raised this complaint when traveling?
In my culture, body language x means y. In this culture, body language x means z, and they use it too much, so it's bad!
Pretty silly, I think, but that's just the complaint Benny's making about smiling. A smile in America certainly doesn't usually mean "I'm gushing with joy at your presence and intend to light up the room with my smile", but it's probably something more like "I'm welcoming you to engage me", which in Europe might simply be conveyed by eye contact. Faulting a different use of body language is just as pointless as faulting a different use of vocabulary.

Let's take a quote from Benny and apply it to a parallel situation to see if it works any better:
Goddamnit America Japan – … [y]ou guys smile bow way too much. It’s fucking annoying! How can you tell when someone means it? And why the hell would a stranger doing a crossword puzzle sudoku on public transport want to look giddy show respect?
Nope, still silly. (This exact situation happened to me just this morning, by the way, although I wasn't the least bit annoyed by it.)

In all three of the items above, Benny's basically faulting American English (whether the language itself or the accompanying body language) for being different than his English. If he wants to keep his English in line with what he likes, he by all means should, but I don't think the "it's different so it sucks" line of argument carries much water or is ever a helpful attitude for a language learner to take.


  1. Don't you think this is quite an irrelevant thing to blog about? I write about my cultural observations as I travel, so it works for me. How is a personal attack of my pet-peeves with Americans something useful for your readers?

    I'm amazed at how sensitive people are being at me basically stating my opinion. I'm just saying these are the reasons that I wouldn't live in the America. They aren't perfect reasons, but they are precisely fitting the blog post deescription. Of course in Ireland we might have an "awesome" equivalent etc. and Irish is the American way of saying Irish American, but these things annoy me, and I explained why.

    People bowing is not the same as smiling. You really can't try to see it from my perspective, can you? Fake smiling is annoying and lacks authenticity. Comparing smiling to bowing is comparing apples and oranges. You have missed the point entirely.

    I notice how you skipped over a lot of my serious points and jumped to a ridiculous overall conclusion from some of my weaker points, stretching them with faulty comparisons. Shame on you. I thought this blog had substance.

    Very disappointed.

  2. zhongguohenduoyuanNov 17, 2011, 1:36:00 AM


  3. I actually think this is completely relevant for language learning. I think the message to language learners should be to learn a language as it is used by its speakers and not to get riled up when it's not as you think it should be. I can't imagine a situation where being annoyed at your target language for whatever reason could do anything but sap your motivation to learn. It's just not a constructive message to send to language learners, and that's the point I wanted to flag with this post. 
    You think the smiling's fake because you think it should convey a certain message, while Americans in fact use it to convey more than just that one message that you think is appropriate, thus making it more common. While there probably are inauthentic I-actually-hate-your-guts smiles in the U.S., as an American who's hopefully pretty good at American body language, I can easily say that they're not very common. That leaves most of the difference simply to different usage.

    I still think the bowing analogy works:

    Standard meaning for smiling: Happy
    Standard meaning for bowing: Respect

    A frequent U.S. use for smiling: I'm communicating with you
    A frequent Japanese use for bowing: Oops, my bad

    Criticizing smiling for not meaning "happy" is like criticizing bowing for not meaning "respect".I ignored the other points of your post because I thought they fell more into the travel, rather than the language-learning, side of your blog, and thus weren't relevant to my point focusing on language learning. America certainly has a reputation for what some might call "crass commercialism", which encompasses several of your points, and you either like the car culture or you don't, so those seem like perfectly reasonable reasons to not want to live in the U.S. that have nothing to do with language, regardless of whether I agree with you or not.

    I reread my post to see if I really went ad hominem on you with a personal attack, but I'm pretty sure I'm only criticizing your positions and not you yourself. And the only reason I'm criticizing them is because they send a message to language learners that, if emulated, could make their learning less effective.

    1. Thanks for writing this. Many of the differences he cited should have been seen as neutral, not negative. In other words, just different. Others, like tax being itemized instead of included, were irrelevant - we both pay sales tax.

      Language learners could do much better than study from a teacher who harbors ignorant prejudices, and American learners especially could do without this burden, since we've already overcome one stereotype to begin with in reaching out to non-English speaking cultures.

    2. I'm coming into the discussion late, but this was a very interesting post. If I read a post like that about a different country with a different language that I was considering learning, my motivation for learning it would be affected, especially as far as traveling to that particular country.

  4. *SIGH*? H is right next to N on my keyboard anyway…

  5. My post wasn't about language learning - it was about cultural frustration and why I wouldn't live PERMANENTLY in the states, but I will be back.

    Criticising me because I'm open about my frustrations is precisely the kind of thing I was angry about with Americans! Everything has to be sunshine and lollipops.

    You can paint whatever justification you want, but this is just anger at the subject matter that has forced you to nitpick me. I write plenty of content that can be nitpicked, but this one pissed you off and you aren't being honest about that.

    The fact that you equate bows and smiles shows how little thought you've put into this. One non verbal expression is NOT the same as the other. We don't bow in Ireland so I can't say I'd see bowing as used "incorrectly" from my perspective. We do smile however, and I find it insulting when people smile at me and don't mean it.

    And what does smiling/bowing have to do with US English frustration? Nothing. It's a stretch to say that's a language criticism. It's a cultural one.

  6. Your post wasn't about language learning specifically, but it had language-learning implications and is on a blog frequented by language learners, so I responded on that point only.

    I'm kind of humored that you actually think I'm angry about this (and kind of feel like I'm being subjected to an "idiotic stereotype", as you call them). I'd imagine that, if I were angry, there'd be better points for me to rage about than three "nitpicky" ones that focus only on language learning.

    In fact, I actually started this post as a comment on your blog where I went point by point, listing out why I agreed or disagreed. When that got unwieldy for a comment, I brought it over here, but then deleted most of it because it just wasn't relevant to language learning. I'd guess that if I kept those ones in where an enthusiastic "I totally agree!" followed by a long explanation was my response, you wouldn't be so hung up on thinking that I'm actually raging about this.

    I didn't equate bows and smiles; I analogized them. But I suppose you're right in that, unless you're familiar with Japanese culture, why that analogy works might not be apparent, so I may have failed the know-thy-audience test on that one.

    I generally consider learning body language (smiles, bows, etc.) to be part and parcel of learning the spoken language, as it's needed to effectively communicate like a native speaker, so I don't think it's a stretch at all to put that in a "language" box, all of which lies in the bigger "culture" box in any case. Your post's focus was on the bigger box, and my post's focus was on the smaller box, so I can say I'm talking about language and you that I'm talking about culture, and we're probably both right.

  7. That's a stretch. Body language is NOT part of "spoken language", it's part of communication in general. It's a cultural thing - you could just as easily say that jeans and a t-shirt is "US English" because that communicates something too.

    Smiles are NOT US English. The whole basis of the theme of this post if flawed if you include that point. The other ones are at least valid arguments against US English vs Irish English.

    So NO, 3 of my reasons for not wanting to live in the US do NOT boil down to US English being different.

    I'm familiar with bows in the form of the Thai wai, and that is one thing that should be argued in itself. Smiles are unique and I was unique referring to them. When you make such an analogy as picking on some random form of body language that may or may not exist in my frame of reference, then frankly you simply don't get the point I was trying to make.

    Showing respect and expressing happiness are not something you can equate as easily as you've done, especially when the basis of my argument is precisely expressing happiness.

    Am I to expect future posts of mine to be nitpicked on this blog? Including those that have sweet feck all to do with language learning, unless you are very generous in your definitions of what spoken language is? Kaufmann ran a series of 16 consecutive posts about me. I commented on his first ones and then eventually tuned him out entirely.

  8. It seems that part of Benny's problem is choosing to hang out with the wrong class of people. For example, I'm not Irish, I don't use the word "awesome", and I never smile.

  9. Perhaps part of Benny's problem is choosing to hang out with the wrong class of people. For example, I'm not Irish, I don't use the word "awesome", and I never smile.

  10. I definitely beg to differ. Americans are the most stressed out people I know. My frame of reference is mostly South America and Europe, so I don't know how it compares with Japan of course.

    I find it hilarious to read that "life is more relaxed here than in a lot of places". As I said in the post, I find most Americans to always be in such a hurry, and way more focused on work/business/money than enjoying life.

    But I can certainly believe there are places more "grouchy", and perhaps Japan is one of them.

  11. I think you guys are both right about the U.S., but you're just going at it from different frames of reference, as Benny suggests. From least relaxed to most relaxed, I'd probably toss out an off-the-cuff gross generalization of East Asia, the U.S., Europe and then Latin America. So if you look at just the first two, "life is more relaxed [in the U.S.] than in a lot of places", but if you look at only the last three, Americans could easily be "the most stressed-out people" one knows.

  12. If we define "culture" as the set of shared practices that characterizes a group (paraphrasing one of the definitions on Wikipedia), then spoken language, body language, and what clothes people wear are all part of culture. I'll give you that you can have spoken language without body language (via the phone, for instance), even though they often come hand in hand, but for the broader "language" box, I'd throw in whatever is necessary to make your language use no different from that of a native: spoken language, written language, body language, etc. While you can certainly sound or write like a native without clothes, not understanding and not properly using body language will be a dead giveaway that you're a non-native speaker, so I still think that body language falls squarely within the "language" box, a theme I've touched on a few times before. So I'd still argue that the way Americans use smiles is just a facet of U.S. English body language (although not necessarily spoken U.S. English, as you point out). 

    I suppose the bowing analogy would have been better if I made it clear that it wouldn't be you making the comment, but rather someone for whom it was within their frame of reference, but I still think the parallels stand. 

    Given that we tend to agree on just about everything related to language learning and nitpicking your posts for 16 consecutive posts worth of content sounds patently boring (for me and for readers), I'm pretty sure you shouldn't be expecting that. That said, when I disagree with you and I think it's worthy of a post, I'm certainly not going to lay it out to you as I see it (however un-American of me that may be) and I'd hope that you don't take it personally. And I of course expect and hope for exactly the same treatment from you and anyone else who cares to chime in.

  13. He wasn't saying that he wouldn't want to live in USA because too many USonians do stupid things and Europeans don't, but because he prefers the European stupidities.

    We do it our way, you do it your way, and we both do it the way we do, because we like it better that way.

    "In my culture, body language x means y. In this culture, body language x means z, and they use it too much, so it's bad!"
    "that's just the complaint Benny's making about smiling."

    No, it's not.  He says, "in my culture BLx means y, in this culture BLx means z, and I don't like it, I can't get used to it, it irritates me, so I wouldn't like living in this culture.

    No-one has said "it's BAD!!!"
    That's your interpretation of "I don't like it, I prefer something else".

    Might be that he is overly sensitive and gets irritated by stupid things, but - so what?

    I get the impression that USonians think they can say anything about anyone in any manner they like whenever they want to - and do too - but if a non-USonian has something negative to say about USonians, they MUST also state that:
    a) they think something positive about USonians too (and express the positive so that it outweighs the negative opinion, preferably mention at least two positive things for every negative one, and stress the importance of the positive so much so that they could have just as well not said that negative thing at all)
    b) they think something negative about non-USonians, especially the group of non-USonians they are a member of, and this something negative should be equally bad or worse.

    I can't imagine a fat person in USA that had NOT heard he/she is fat, from people he knows and from total strangers, and I can't recall ever hearing anyone say: "You're fat, but you have pretty eyes, and beautiful voice, and I'm not so very fit myself either, and your weight is really none of my business, so let's forget the whole thing, sorry I said anything."

  14. Ironically I would level most of the criticisms/observations that Benny makes at Benny himself and did sort of at one point Benny is afraid of words like "hard (including harder or hardest or relatively hard" or  "difficult" or "fail".  He whines about people being negative and then uses negative phrasing about others "self-delusional" rather than "mistaken" or mis-informed for example.

    He precedes his posts with large photo's featuring himself in "affected poses" according my cultural reference. And apparently he is doing people a favour by not relying on boring stock pictures.

    Apparently you skip over some of the points in his post (not like Benny never does that).  I think your post was a point well made.
    You can't travel around the world bleating about how learning to talk a few words of a language gives you an amazing cultural insight and then expect people not to react when you blantly ignore cultural word differences in different versions of English.


  15. Is being "open about your frustrations" a cultural think or a personal approach?

  16. I'd be fine with striking "it's bad" from my generalization and replacing it with "I don't like it" or "it's irritating" or both. The point still stands that it's a poor attitude for a language learner to take towards their target language that could potentially sap their motivation. 

    I don't think Americans use a double standard as you suggest, but I think your impression could come from part of Benny's first point, i.e., that Americans generally want to avoid offending people and expect the same from others. I could very much see an American saying something like, "I love French restaurants, but French waiters are so rude," with their point being the latter but tacking on the former to soften the punch. 

    From the other side, I think it's become sort of a "cool" thing to criticize the U.S. The U.S. has been in such a powerful position globally for so long that it's looked at as "the man", and who doesn't want to stick it to the man when they have the chance? Can we expect a similar post from Benny entitled "17 cultural reasons why this European never wants to live in Peru"? I doubt it. 

    And I hope he doesn't. Benny's posts (and his book) pretty much always emphasize how language learners can keep up their motivation; indeed, the positive "You can do it!" attitude that permeates his blog is one of the things that makes it so inspiring. I don't see any situation where raging at your target language's culture could do anything but sap motivation, so I don't think it's constructive thing to promote from a language-learning standpoint. 

    That's not to say that people aren't going to have these kinds of frustrations when learning a language. A post that acknowledges these and then explains how to prevent them from draining your motivation? Now that's a post that I could sign on to. 

  17. The post you link to on Benny's blog seems to cover the three points I list above. His ironic complaint of "Why can’t [foreign languages] just all be like English?" seems to easily parallel "Why can't American English just be like European English?" He then goes on to dismiss all such complaints in respect of language learning (he's not talking about the broader culture box in that post), which would apply to the three points I raise above.

  18. In some respects I agree with Benny but for different reasons.

    Learning about cultural differences is one of the most pleasing parts of language learning. When learning a language we get an insight into the mindset of a native speaker. Then when we visit that country, we can fit in more easily and feel more at home much quicker than a monolingual tourist.

    The points Benny raises do not trouble me too much because that's America and Americans but what annoys me is that often they cannot leave their culture at home when visiting another country.

    I live in the UK and use to work in the hospitality industry. I met Americans all the time and many would say they were English, Scottish, British etc. To me this was insulting. They clearly were not English, Scottish, British. I felt like saying how their ancestors had left these shores 200 years ago - "get over it - you're American - you're about as English/Irish/Scottish as my Japanese wife!"

    The point is that sometimes we have to remember that, even if we speak the same language, some things when taken outside the country and their cultural backdrop, are insulting to others.

  19. Christophe ClugstonApr 23, 2012, 9:30:00 AM

    Interesting on a lot of levels. Benny certainly ego surfs his name. But, it's true US people want hyperbolic talk at all times. Most are so ethnocentric they don't see the need for an Atlas.
    What is clear that no one commenting is a cultural anthropologist. Yeah, truth is truth: there are many L 1 English cultures: hardly could put someone from Iowa into Mansfield, UK. Newfoundland Canadians frequently comment on arrogant, loud, egocentric USA people (and it's all correct). Trying to switch the tangent to Benny shouldn't talk about these things (a form of control, censorship) does NOT change his observations.
    And saying well he doesn't know that when we smile we don't mean it--of course not, he wasn't expecting you to lie. Honesty--where are the Germans when you need them?
    And it is the id problem of US people (America is a continent--but you would need an atlas to know that--and we already covered that USA people don't believe in those). Of course all USA people are from Europe (majority) other than the genocide-ed natives. However, they weren't born in Europe don't speak another language--it's insulting. They are not Irish anymore than drinking green beer makes someone's place of birth change.
    In short--it's good the posters didn't try to get anthropology degrees.