With Labor Day behind us and everyone in a back-to-work mood I have been thinking about differences in the workplace and confusion between those of us who grew up speaking “English English” as opposed to “American English.”
While I know that workplaces can include schools, hospitals, retail outlets, the great outdoors and many other locations, since I have always pursued a career in public relations, media relations and marketing, the workplace to me has always meant an office — or at least a desk, telephone and computer. Of course in my field of work I have always needed to attend lots of meetings with clients, potential clients and the media — and despite the rise in useful tools such as email, Skype and mobile telecommunications, in my opinion nothing beats an old-fashioned in-person discussion on at least some occasions.
Let me begin by unraveling some of the differences in the corporate world as yet again “we are divided by a common language” (as Winston Churchill famously said). To translate some business terms from the U.S. to the U.K.: general manager becomes “managing director” or “MD,” stock in a company are “shares,” a check is spelled “cheque,” treasury bonds are “gilts” (short for gilt-edged stock) and janitor becomes “caretaker.”
In the early days of living and working in the U.S. it took me a while to get used to these definitions and others to navigate the business scene. If a meeting was ‘downtown’ I had to understand this meant “the city centre” (British spelling). If the meeting was with a municipal government, then this equates to a British “local authority,” but if with a corporation, it was similar to what I called a “limited company” in the U.K.
All this is before negotiating the parking lot (car park) and reaching the correct floor (the first floor is known as the ground floor in the land of my birth and the second floor is the first, the second the third, etc.) and the taking the “lift” rather than elevator.
I remember spending many an early business encounter misunderstanding some expressions and having to overcome my natural British reserve (although this is not too hard for me, says my husband) and ask for clarification. I thought I was prepared because I knew that I needed to ask for the restroom rather than “loo.”
However, during the lunch break I was flummoxed when a lovely woman said that she would join me to eat as she had brought a brown bag lunch but was jonesing for a hamburger. In the U.K. that would be a “packed lunch” and we would be “longing for” a beef burger. Then when I asked where her boss was and she explained that he was boondoggling — apparently he was making contacts on the golf course — I was more than confused. But I think this was a two-way issue as when we were chatting over lunch, I explained that I had begun working as a “dogs body” (go-fer or gopher) to get some experience in PR during my university days. She looked shocked.
When it comes to employment law there is also a great deal to learn. I had no clue what exempt and non-exempt employees meant, had to adjust my planning for a tax year that ends at the end of the calendar year (unlike the rather illogical end of the British tax year on April 5) and had to apply for something called a Social Security number — an early bureaucratic adventure I would rather forget.
Still I must remember that it could be much worse. I remember an older English gentleman of my acquaintance who had come to teach in the U.S. many years ago when the U.K. had not been so influenced by Americanisms through TV and the Internet.
He was proud to have learnt that a school principal equated to a British headmaster or mistress, that American schools generally had two semesters instead of three terms and that the British timetable was called a schedule (which in England is pronounced ‘shed-yule’). Unfortunately he did not realize in the first days of teaching his students that unlike in England an eraser is NEVER described as a “rubber.”
God bless America!
Francis grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009. She can be contacted at email@example.com or www.lesleyfrancispr.com.