Life As An Expat: Say What?

The world of foreign spouses and long distance relationships isn't always as glamorous as it seems. 

You've got your time zone differences, the cost of international travel, visa issues, and the like. 

But this post got me thinking about one aspect of having a foreign spouse that's perhaps a little unexpected.

You see, Jaime wrote about the fact that she doesn't understand her husband half the time (he's a Brit, she's American). I relate in so many ways. D (who's South African) and I have daily conversations about the words pawn and porn – because mainly, when he says either word, he's saying the same word. The exact same word. You would be surprised at how often those words come up, so this is a constant topic for us.

Even when you take away the accents and the slang, in my three years in London I've found that there are still many ways that an English speaker can straight-up not understand another English speaker. Even the most everyday exchanges can be rough. It's funny because it's English – we are, quite literally, speaking the same language. 

And yet.

After the post, Jaime and I started talking about English to English translations with some other American expat pals. This led me to realize how much I actively change the way I speak when I'm in London in an effort to be understood. Here are a few of the main differences in the way I speak English in the UK vs. the US:


Phone numbers are written and spoken in different formats in different countries, and they can even be different lengths – that's obvious enough. But the cadence in which phone numbers are read in the UK is different from what I'm used to in the US and it makes me crazy self conscious anytime I'm asked to provide my phone number to the NHS, a utility company, whatever.

Rather than the xxX-XXx-xXXx cadence I'm used to, a phone number is read some other way here. What way is that? Three years in and I haven't a clue. Instead, I just read my phone number like a random list of 11 single digits: X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X and wait for it all to be over.



This has a different meaning in the UK than it would in the States. The person asking you this "question" isn't really asking if you're ok. Instead, it's more of a rhetorical, "How are you?" This isn't a question poised as a concern about your well being – it's just a polite greeting.

When I first arrived in London, I used to respond along the lines of "Yeah, thanks. Why?" because I was concerned that I was coming across as down or depressed. Now I just awkwardly say "" and smile.



Another issue I have with providing information about myself to people deals with spelling my name. My last name (surname) usually needs to be spelled if it's asked for. Instead of saying "R-E-E-T-zee" and even pulling out my mom's old "T as in Tom, Z as in zebra" – I now say "R-double E-T-zed" and haven't gotten a follow-up question since.

(Similarly, I make a point to spell my first name allowed as well, as RobIn is typically only used for males in the UK, while RobYn is the female version. Don't even get me started on the amount of mail [post] I've received addressed to "Mr. Robin Reetz".)



In my experience in the UK, "cute" is generally referred to as something that's actually cute – like a baby, or a tiny thing. This differs from the American use of "cute" where the word is used for, quite frankly, anything.

I learned this after my first long-time contract job here when I referenced wanting to move to a neighborhood with a "cute High Street". My co-workers used to (lovingly, mind you) say "super cute!" after I responded to anything with enthusiasm because I said it in response to lots of things and no one else does that.

Except American expats.



Another thing that mainly only American expats do? Use exclamation points. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but in general email etiquette is far more formal and far less excited than it is in the States. In fact, most professional emails don't contain exclamation points – which came as a shock to me, considering I've always worked in the world of women's editorial. (Those people basically invented exclamation points.)


On that note, I'd love to hear your experiences with this – whether you're an English speaker who hails from somewhere other than the US, or if you're an American who struggles to give their phone number. What are your experiences with English-to-English mistranslations?