Living in a different country provides many opportunities to reflect on your accent and/or dialect, whether you want them or not. (Just to clarify, accent is the way you pronounce words, dialect is what kind of words you say; both vary according to where you are from. Yes, we all have an accent, all of us).
Every time I open my mouth, I get one of the following reactions:
1. Absolutely nothing. The conversation carries on as normal. Thank God for these people.
2. A slight pause. A blank look. Where are you from? I’m from England. Oh my gosh I love your accent! Thanks…
3. A complete stop. Blank look rapidly morphs into a stare. Excuse me? (I repeat the sentence). I’m sorry I don’t understand… what? (I repeat the sentence again, hoping one of my friends from category #1 is around to ‘translate’ for me).
4. Immediate mimicking of whatever I just said.
This reaction can be further sub-divided as follows:
a. the gentle ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ kind of copying, often accompanied by some comment like oh that sounds so much nicer with a British accent. Or, you’re so funny, say it again! Say something British! And sometimes followed up with a funny question about Britain.
b. the slightly harsher ‘I’m going to copy every word you say’ kind of mimicking. Mostly accompanied by an it’s because I like it, it’s because I want to sound like you type comment. I remain skeptical about this. I think you just want to tease me, and my accent is an easy target. My usual response is to mimic their accent back to them. Childish, I know…
c. the outright mocking – stupid British people don’t even speak properly. They think they’re so much better than us, but they don’t even pronounce their ‘r’s’ properly. I got reprimanded by a seven-year-old American child once, for pronouncing the word directions ‘incorrectly.’ True story.
Whatever type of reaction I get provokes a reaction in me. From “thank goodness my accent isn’t going to be an issue to this person, we can be friends,” all the way through to “I know. I know I’m British. It’s not wrong, it’s just DIFFERENT. And THAT’S OK.”
I read this post recently, talking about the fact that when people pay attention to the way you say something, they are largely ignoring what you say. This happens to me on a regular basis. I’m trying to make a serious point, or even a joke, or maybe just be sociable and join in the conversation. Straight away a word or phrase I have said gets copied, and it completely undercuts any point I had to make.
Some days I don’t really care, but some days I find it hugely disconcerting. You just never quite know when someone is going to undermine what you said, even if you’re serious, by getting distracted by the way you said it. Some days, I would rather just keep my mouth closed…