how the world sees america

TV in the American Language

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Jerry Springer cat fights are so much better in America! Everything over there is bigger and more dramatic, so when British drama students play Americans, they don't worry about over-doing it.

Six students in Manchester's drama school spend Tuesday evening perfecting their American accents for the “America bloc” of their theater training. They perform scenes from Neil Simon’s play California Suite in which, among other assorted disasters, a wife returns to her room at the Beverly Hills Hotel to find her husband’s hooker passed out in bed.

Reflecting on rehearsals so far, a student named Rachel tells me “It’s been a culture shock. In school we were never really taught about America.” But they’ve had plenty of exposure: Friends, Will & Grace, Frasier...Sally Jessy Rafael. “If you watched as much British TV as we watch American TV, you’d be able to impersonate us too,” they reassure me as I awkwardly say “Hallo” in a British accent. “We don’t even notice American accents on TV, like we do accents from other countries.”

The conversation quickens as talk turns to the UK version of Jerry Springer, where Jerry interviews Brits instead of Americans. “It’s so boring,” Rachel complains. “In the American version you’re on the edge of your seat….People are brawling…” “And marrying their pets!” Sara jumps in. But in the British version “it’s so tame -- Jerry just tells people to get a job or exercise.” The reason for this, I’m told, is that Americans let loose their emotions much more readily than the Brits, and have a penchant for the sensational.

“Everything in America is big. From the food buffets,” to the personalities. "Their performances are daring, controversial.” So when they imitate our accent, these girls mimic us in loud voices, elongated vowels, and mischievous grins. How you speak, they tell me, says as much as what you say.

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Comments (34)

Missing Link:

i've always enjoyed listening to other peoples accents. i work at a call center that and talk to people from all over the US and Canada, i get lots of different ones.

Really the only exposure i've had to british accents recently is the movie "Snatch" i picked up a batch of phrases that would probly get me it in the UK, but nobody at home knows what i'm saying.

Missing Link:

i've always enjoyed listening to other peoples accents. i work at a call center that and talk to people from all over the US and Canada, i get lots of different ones.

Really the only exposure i've had to british accents recently is the movie "Snatch" i picked up a batch of phrases that would probly get me it in the UK, but nobody at home knows what i'm saying.

Missing Link:

i've always enjoyed listening to other peoples accents. i work at a call center that and taslk to people from all over the US and Canada, i get lots of different ones.

Really the only exposure i've had to british accents recently is the movie "Snatch" i picked up a batch of phrases that would probly get me it in the UK, but nobody at home knows what i'm saying.

Ruthie Vincent:

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Langley:

Sara, he is certainly dominating in the U.S. I see Fox everyday at work and am constantly frightened. And now he plans to buy The Wall Street journal, one of our best papers. Scary indeed.

Sara:

Interesting but not all that suprising as we watch Rupert Murdoch attempt world domination...

Langley:

Thank you both for responding! That's interesting that it was bought off like that...

Sara:

Langley - 24 used to be shown on terrestrial TV here (available to everyone) and was very popular. Unfortunately (as is the case with a lot of the good American shows aired here in Britain) it was bought by Sky and is now only shown on a cable/satelitte TV channel which is available to those who pay a monthly fee for the service.

The same happened with Lost and although it still has a huge fan base here, it will surely have lost a number of viewers as not everyone can afford to subscribe to Sky.

Rachel:

24? Sorry Langley - i don't watch it!

Langley:

Hi, Sara, Rachel, thanks for coming online to answer questions. That's great of you, very cool. I might be a little late so I don't know if you're still around, but if you are, what do you think of the show 24?

Sara:

Hi, I also took part in this interview with Amar and it has been interesting to read all of these comments.

TJ - The thing is is that we were having some very light hearted banter and some of the TV shows we quoted were just the ones that are easy to ridicule. You are right - who the hell does watch Sally Jessy Raphiel?!

Of course we do also watch the big prime time shows. And they are great - they have the skilful script writing and big budget production that we are seriously lacking in Britain at the moment.

Rachel:

Hi,I'm Rachel who appeared in Amar's interview at The Arden School of Theatre. I will be more than happy to answer any questions on British TV/media,if it helps.

Amar C. Bakshi:

Hi TJ,

I was struck by that too. Compared to other nations, like Zimbabwe, where people watch B-shows we've never heard of here, the UK shows they watch include both the very new, and the slightly old.

Very popular shows here in Manchester currently include Grey's Anatomy, 24 and Lost. (House, a show I love, starring British actor Hugh Laurie, is not particularly popular here much to my dismay).

One interesting thing, however, is that 24 and several other popular shows are now on satellite TV and viewers must pay to access them, I believe. I'm not entirely sure of the details on this and will ask these girls to come online and talk about it a bit more. They'll respond to you and a few others and introduce themselves before posting.

Hope that helps!

TJ:

Whats interesting is that the shows that they quote are not the prime time shows that draw the ratings and american viewers, these shows they've quoted have been on the mid week and mid day time slots for a while now, friends is long gone, everybody loves raymond is old. who the hell watches sallie jessi raphiael, I wonder what they would think of the prime time shows we watch like CSI, Heroes, one of the many Law and Orders, Lost, Saproanos or what have you.

TJ:

Whats interesting is that the shows that they quote are not the prime time shows that draw the ratings and american viewers, these shows they've quoted have been on the mid week and mid day time slots for a while now, friends is long gone, everybody loves raymond is old. who the hell watches sallie jessi raphiael, I wonder what they would think of the prime time shows we watch like CSI, Heroes, one of the many Law and Orders, Lost, Saproanos or what have you.

JRLR:

This enthusiasm about what is foreign (in this case American) is contagious. It is spontaneous, speaks of discovery, points to what is new to “them”, “different”, to what surprises them, what makes them smile, giggle or laugh wholeheartedly.

It is all perception, of course, all relative to home, but instructive, as much on the speaker as on what he/she is talking about. There is so much to learn from how others see us, individually but also collectively, how they will go about trying to imitate us.

Observers may be wrong, as they often are, but getting acquainted with others makes people smile at one another, tease each other, brings people closer to one another. After a while, most learn we are all different, not superior to one another, just different; and that life, in this world, can be lived in so many different ways that make people reasonably happy and contented with themselves and with their lives.

What a pleasant, lighthearted diversion to feel our common human ground, if only for some short moments, away from permanent conflict and perpetual war!

Amar C. Bakshi:

Thanks Andy for the comment. It definitely seems that U.S. media (and foreign media) have a tremendous impact on foreign perceptions of the U.S. I will try also to upload clips from it as well so you can see what some people around the world are seeing.

Andy:

I really hope this blog spends more time on how foreigners view America through these cartoonish stereotypes. As if watching network TV gives you an accurate idea of what life is like here. It's funny to hear how comfortable they are listening to standard American accents (and I hear that all that TV has created problems, such as Brits mistakenly dialing "911" instead of "999" for emergencies) but big, brash and overblown isn't necessarily typical.

Scott:

Seriouly Racel is my SISTER! WooHoo!

Rooster:

Raduodogi - That is probably true for accents all across the world! I think we are all guilty of holding a few stereotypical views at least once in our lives.

raduodogi:

I'd think that the UK have an incomplete idea of American accents if they only get them from TV. Friends and Will and Grace take place in NY so some of the characters have a thick NY accent. Other shows take place in California and the characters have a more Western accent. And let's not forget the shows that take place in the South and that exaggerated Southern accent. But there is the Midwest, which is also part of America but the UK may not see. Or the New England accent that's not Boston like Maine or Vermont. I'd think the same is true for Americans who get their idea of a British accent from Britcoms on PBS.

Rooster:

Forgiven - you are really not making much sense. Who is saying that the world should speak like Americans? Who is saying that the world should aspire to be like Americans? Who is saying that the world WANTS to imitate Americans??

I think you want to come across as political but I think it's quite clear that you have entirely missed the point.

tal:

For one, I love you Rachel.

Number two, I'm an American who has known Rachel for almost two years, but have never been to England.

I think most of the above comments were from people who totally missed the point of this column.

It's about acting students learning dialect and noticing the differences between their culture and ours.

It's nothing personal.

But there's always those people who just have to put their two cents in, no matter how pompous and/or unnecessary they unknowingly make themselves appear.

And bringing up Bush?
Honestly... give me a break.

And for the person who did that, I really hope you don't go further out on that limb to try to justify why you wrote what you wrote.

Forgiven:

If you want to know what I am on about stay tuned to this project and it will become all too clear. Why should the world speak like we do? Why should the world aspire to be like us, if what I have written is not true? We don't even think about it, we just assume that everyone wants to be imitate us.

Anonymous:

we are a people separated by a common language, or so i have heard.

Cubeland:

When I lived in Manchester, I had a housemate who was from near Newcastle. He and I couldn't understand each other for about the first month and we literally had to have a "posher" Lincoln housemate translate back and forth between us. Sometimes people would ask me if I was from another part of Lancashire, which always surprised me since I think I have a pretty American accent.

Been there & done that:

I lived in London and picked up that stilted accent very quickly, as well as some lovely expressions nonexistent in the U.S. I think if you consider just what the expression "quite" means in England versus the U.S., that alone tells of the nuances of our ally, friend and forefathers.

Speaking of "acting" and accents, it is interesting the chatter Madonna earns given that she has picked up the British accent.

It is true what the drama students said. About them not really the American accent. One of the strangest things that happened to us Americans in London is soon it took awhile to click that another American was speaking to us - say in a forum at a special reception. Yes, we also kept is toned down on the tube and other places and glared out the loud Americans who were soiling our good name.

Finally, there actually is not a ton of American programming on Brit tele. One of the things I found interesting that several of the reality shows actually originated in Britain and later came to the U.S.

Back to the Drama students, I encourage them to excel and make it into the big L.A. and NYC releases some day. I fancy many an English actor - and Welsh too for that matter (right, and Scottish).

Jennifer:

Not sure what "Forgiven" is on about, but back to the question of Brits and American English...

In my experience, the reaction, if there is one, is minimal. I'm finishing up my first year of undergrad at Oxford; most of my British friends can do near-perfect American accents, and certainly they all watch more American shows than I do (Family Guy is particularly popular at my college). Most of them are well-versed in all things American - politics being a favored dinnertable topic - and the only time when my accent is mentioned, it is for the entertainment value that it provides. They have a laugh making me say things like "Barry was buried in Berry" and "Mary married merrily" (or, their favorite, "wanker"), and teaching me to speak "proper English."

Pete:

U.K. people, I beg you, please stay away from american tv, you will end up dumber than us!. American TV dominates the world?, probably but at the expense of what?. Ideological penetration at its best.

C-dog:

Bill: I agree. What in the world does whatever Forgiven is talking about have to do with accent training by British drama students? Anyway, I'm going to England next week for the first time and it will be interesting to see if there is any reaction to an American accent. I suspect it will be old hat to them, but foreign, nonetheless.

Bill:

This is exactly what's wrong with blogs. A perfectly innocent and interesting is written about language and culture, a someone decides to hijack it by posting some long-winded blather about American imperialism. Rational people stay away!

Forgiven:

This administration has treated the American people as an inconvenience that must be tolerated. From the beginning this administration has carried on with an attitude of indifference towards those who are not considered “loyal Bushies”. As if they can determine who is a loyal American and who isn’t based on their litmus test of loyalty. They have arrogantly dismissed and patronized anyone who would have the nerve to question their assessments of the world. They would have us believe that they alone possess all knowledge and therefore all solutions and if we would just get out of their way and allow them the freedom they would resolve all of our problems.

I thought that once Donald Rumsfeld was relieved of command that maybe there would be a sense of civility. Surely there is no one more dismissive and arrogant as he is; is there? Mr. Rumsfeld one of the chief architects of this Iraqi invasion was one of the most abrasive men I have ever seen, now while I have never met the man his persona was that of an adult who had suddenly tired of the incessant questions of a child. The only problem was that there were no children; these were adults posing legitimate questions of a public servant.

I think I have it; this administration, it seems does not see their duty as public service at all, therefore you owe nothing to the public. It seems as though they believe that are running some giant multinational that only has to report to the board and the investors. The general public, well they’ll get over it.

It is exactly this attitude of invincibility and arrogance that has this nation on the downward path that it is on. It was arrogance that caused Mr. Bush to fly onto that carrier with the “Mission Accomplished” banner, it was arrogance that made him say, “Bring it on” to the terrorists, and it was arrogance that believes that if I say “global warming” doesn’t exist, then it doesn’t exist. How dare, we the American public have the nerve to question these loyal patriots. We are only trying to protect you from yourselves. You know you can’t have too much freedom for the masses. The only truth that you need is what we are willing to provide you.

The rest of the world has always admired us, but at the same time they have always believed that we are arrogant. Talk to people from outside of America and you will continue to hear this refrain. There is no one right way to live! While our way of life has worked for us, that doesn’t mean it will work for everyone in every circumstance. We must be willing to humble ourselves and accept that others also have opinions and ideas that are valuable. No one person or country knows everything about anything. Here is a sample of what the world is writing about us:

“Understand that I am neither European nor American but that I see Europe as a more adequate partner than the USA. I am shocked of the attitude of people like Miller as they are the reason for antiamericanism in the world. Americans think that they are armed missionaries and that they have a "divine mission" to export their model of political government in the world... Well guess what gringos? you'll be amazed to see that the world is a very diverse place and that different cultures demand different things. If you try to make someone accept something which he doesn't want (ex: occupation of Irak, Afghanistan...) he'll give you something you don't want either ( ex: terrorist attacks...)

It is a shame that America does not realize that. Until it does it won’t bring upon itself sympathy from the rest of the world.”

“It is commonly known that around the globe, we Americans are regarded as rather arrogant. In part, our subtle (or not so subtle) sense of superiority flows from the belief (espoused in our schools, churches, and service organizations, and reinforced by our politicians) that we are citizens of the best and most powerful nation on earth. Most of the planet, however, doesn't quite see it that way.”

Now is the time to climb off of our high horse and engage the world, not in a condescending way but in a mutual partnership. Where each party is valued and whose opinions and concerns are given merit, even if they go against our own…

http://thedisputedtruth.blogspot.com/

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