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To what extent is an American accent an asset in the UK, if at all?
January 21, 2005 6:59 AM   Subscribe

"I'd suggest ...the UK... You'll get a job doing whatever you want easily, because you've got an American accent" Mefi-Brits & Expats, have you found this to be true? To what extent is an American accent an asset in the UK, if at all?
posted by leotrotsky to Society & Culture (48 answers total)
 
HA! It's a good way of getting the pissed ripped out of you on a daily basis!
posted by i_cola at 7:02 AM on January 21, 2005


or even 'the piss'...
posted by i_cola at 7:02 AM on January 21, 2005


Having a Californian for a girlfriend, I can tell you it's good for starting conversations.
Or, at least, conversation singular, because it's always about "why are you here?" and, "God, that George Bush, eh?"...

After that, most people are too cynical to give you a leg-up just because you have a novelty accent.
posted by NinjaPirate at 7:05 AM on January 21, 2005


I ask as I was a grad student there, thinking of going back for a job at some point, and I always assumed that no one really gave a damn. But if we exude some sort of exotic "must hire" allure, that would be an incentive towards heading back.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:05 AM on January 21, 2005


GO GO GO GO GO !! I worked in London for 2 years cold-calling advertising sales in a boiler room filled with 90 20-something british guys. I was the only American (and 22 years old). I also DJ'ed house music in the London clubs- I would wear my hat backwards and play American records they had never heard before. I couldn't even beatmatch for shit but I still got gigs because of my accent.

Sure, you will get the piss taken out of you, constantly, but it's only the piss. They shut up once you effortlessly chat up and snog birds at pubs.

Your voice will seperate you from the herd, but know that your 6 month visa will hurt you, as the only real work you will probably get is temping. (I happen to be British with an American accent).
posted by remlapm at 7:18 AM on January 21, 2005


I don't think there's any hint of a must-hire exoticness. I hired into a UK company, but in my business (oil), being American isn't always an asset. There's lots of places I can't go, for one thing.

From my MBA days (in the UK), I guess there's a sort of no-nonsense cred that having an American accent commands. It might command attention, but it doesn't buy you a job.

Or maybe that was just me being another gobby Yank. Our loudness definitely stands out over here.
posted by sagwalla at 7:21 AM on January 21, 2005


What NinjaPirate said. I've been in London for just over a year, and aside from being a conversational "in", it's pretty much a non-factor.
posted by Optamystic at 7:27 AM on January 21, 2005


There's a lot of the UK that's still pretty provincial. More than a decade ago I lived in a small town (Atherstone, which is a suburb of Nuneaton, which is a suburb of Coventry, which is near Birmingham) and attended grade school, and not only had most of my peers never seen an American in the flesh, many had never ever been to London and considered our six months of aggressive sightseeing (e.g. actually going to Scotland) to be a bit loony. I got the feeling that my parents were likewise novelties among their crowd, although less so. So, if by the UK you mean places in addition to London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh, etc., you may in fact be treated with a little starry-eyed wonder.
posted by blueshammer at 7:46 AM on January 21, 2005


I'm from the U.S. and I did temp work for over a year in London. Reactions to my accent in the work world ranged from neutral to negative, but it certainly never was an asset that I could see. One particular memory I have is of getting my timecard signed by some manager of some sort. I had not spoken to him during my whole assignment and when I (politely) asked him to sign my timecard he replied, "Oh, you're American? If I had known that we would have sent you back to the agency." Also, my SO at the time was Swedish, but she had an American accent and got a lot of shit for it.

Now, socially, the reactions varied. Sometimes the accent was a novelty and a good conversation starter (usually depending on how tourist-ridden the neighborhood was) and sometimes it was a ticket to instant hostility. YMMV.
posted by Otis at 7:48 AM on January 21, 2005


Derail: with my British "received pronunciation", am I more likely to get a job/ a shag/ murdered in the US of A?
posted by Pericles at 7:54 AM on January 21, 2005


What about Canadians? Can Brits tell the difference between a Canuck and Yank accent, and will they treat us Canadians better accordingly?
posted by Gortuk at 7:57 AM on January 21, 2005


Gortuk- I'm an American and I can't tell the difference between a US and Canadian accent most of the time!

I've honestly never heard anyone say "aboot," and I know plenty of Americans who say "aye." If you live on the border (like I do) you would be hard pressed to tell if someone was from Buffalo or Fort Erie, or which Niagara Falls, by accent alone.

But, I also use that to my advantage and tell people I'm from Fort Erie, Ontario when traveling.
posted by Kellydamnit at 8:08 AM on January 21, 2005


Pericles, seriously, #2
posted by NinjaPirate at 8:09 AM on January 21, 2005


We can't always tell the difference between yanks and canuck, but once you say "I'm canadian" we will love you.
posted by Pericles at 8:11 AM on January 21, 2005


I've been in outer London for 3 years, and traveled pretty widely in England and Wales. Reactions to my accent have ranged from "none whatsoever" to "open hostility," with most of the hostility occurring in the countryside.

Gortuk: "Are you Canadian," is a pretty standard question over here to anyone with a North American accent. It avoids embarrassment for everyone.
posted by Tholian at 8:16 AM on January 21, 2005


Gortuk - some Brits can tell the difference between a Canadian and an American accent (the vowels tend to be slightly different), especially if it's pointed out to them.

I've found that, as a Canadian living in the UK, people tend to become more friendly/less guarded when they find out that I'm Canadian. This is by no means a hard and fast rule but even my British friends confirm that this is generally the case as British perceptions of Canadians tend to be less negative than perceptions of Americans. Of course, all of this will fall to the wayside once Brits get to actually know you.

[on preview: what Pericles said]
posted by lumiere at 8:16 AM on January 21, 2005


Answer to the main question: it depends on your field. I'm an American TV/film writer living in London, and the Brits seem to think Americans know the secret to commercially successful films and artistically successful TV shows. (The former is probably self-explanatory; the latter stems from the fact that only the best US shows get aired here, so their image of US TV is formed by the Sopranos, Scrubs, West Wing, etc.) I definitely find it easier to get my calls returned here than in LA.

Because the Brits have certain stereotypes about the American personaly, an American accent may also be an advantage in a field where a sort of can-do, slightly pushy attitude is seen as helpful. In jobs where subtlety or discretion is valued, an American accent is probably a drawback.

Socially, I've enountered complaints about Bush, but given that I share those complaints, they don't bother me. I've never had any explicit anti-American sentiment directed against me personally (other than in the form of good-natured teasing, which I always respond to in kind).

I also get the sense that single American men have a cultural advantage of British men on the dating seen, since we Yanks are trained to be more upfront about our romantic interests. But I've never been single in Britain so I can't testify first hand.

Also, I should note that most of my experience has been in London.

(Pericles: an RP accent is seen as incredibly sophisticated in the US. In certain poor and/or backwards areas this may cause resentment, but the vast majority of the time, it will be a minor advantage to you both professionally and a MAJOR adventage romantically.)
posted by yankeefog at 8:21 AM on January 21, 2005


D'oh. That's dating scene.
posted by yankeefog at 8:23 AM on January 21, 2005


I can tell pretty easily the difference between an American and Canadian (but probably only because I've worked with a few Canadians and so had the opportunity to hear the differences on a daily basis) - I find Americans much more, erm, nasal. I can't imagine how being an American right now would be an asset in the UK since we think your President is a twat and so, until proven otherwise, we think you are too. Sorry - a bit harsh, but that's how it seems to me from my (fairly limited really) experience.
posted by eatcherry at 8:24 AM on January 21, 2005


A good friend of mine worked in the London branch of a financial company for two years. While never overtly hostile, her arrival was met with frosty indifference. After several months, she'd made some wonderful friends (many of whom traveled to the US for her wedding this year) and was at the pub nearly every evening with the "gang" - but it took quite a while. Unless you have acquaintances over there already (or, as noted above, are in a particular field like TV/film) I'd say being a Yank isn't likely to be much of an advantage, at least during the "getting your foot in the door" stage. Most europeans I've asked about American accents find them rather nasal and not terribly pleasant to listen to.

As to the reverse - most Americans can't get enough of English/Scottish/Irish/Australian* accents, even ones that, in their home country, would be considered lower class.

* I throw the Aussies in there because 70% of Americans assume they're English, unless they specifically say "G'day mate" or mention a "barbie."
posted by jalexei at 8:43 AM on January 21, 2005


It's true. I'd kill for an accent from any part of britain... In fact, if I were a single English guy, I'd have to REALLY love my life and home not to move to NYC or any other US metropolis.
posted by drpynchon at 9:41 AM on January 21, 2005


I imagine it would depend on the type of American accent. Heavy Noow Yawk accents or Bahstan accents, or even Suthern accents might seem cute.

American English, on the other hand, is normally lacking accent, which is why it sounds so boring. So if you just talk "normal" (mid-western, anchor-man style) it probably won't help.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:56 AM on January 21, 2005


I find that when I meet people with an American accent, they stand out just a little bit more and so whatever opinion I form about them stands out, for better or worse.

As for telling the difference between Canadian and American accents, I can do it easily, having met quite a few of both.
posted by adrianhon at 9:58 AM on January 21, 2005


I throw the Aussies in there because 70% of Americans assume they're English

As a brit in the US (with an accent that's nearer Michael Caine than Hugh Grant), I've often been mistaken for an Australian.
posted by normy at 10:22 AM on January 21, 2005


Tholian: I generally find the "Are you a Canadian?" question insulting, because the implication is that I should be embarassed to be American. Perhaps that has something to do with the current American president (who I didn't vote for), but then the asker has very little over me since their head of government is Tony Blair. At least getting this question makes it fairly to identify politician-type people.

A simple question I ask when I want to know where someone is from that completely eliminates the need for prejudices based on someone's accent, skin color, or clothing: "Where are you from?"

In general, my experiences here have taught me not to assume shit about the people or environment where someone grew up unless I have spent significant time there myself (but then it's not assuming).
posted by grouse at 10:28 AM on January 21, 2005


when I (politely) asked him to sign my timecard he replied, "Oh, you're American? If I had known that we would have sent you back to the agency."

"Damn! I knew I shouldn't have helped throw that tea overboard."
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:54 AM on January 21, 2005


grouse, the "Are you Canadian?" isn't to imply you should be embarrassed to be American. It's 'cause some Canadians are annoyed by being asked "Are you American?" Present company excepted, few Americans are annoyed by being asked "Are you Canadian?"

I'm not bad at telling Australian and New Zealand accents apart, but an Austrailian friend told me it's the same deal -- if you ask, you're safer with "Are you from New Zealand?"

While we're on the subject, does anyone know how having an American accent affects one's treatment in Ireland (esp. Dublin)?
posted by Zed_Lopez at 11:53 AM on January 21, 2005


I can only speak for Northern Ireland (which is socially and politically a lot more conservative than the UK) but I think it wouldn't be much different in this case. I would imagine that the reaction might be a little more extreme either way (they'll either love you or hate you) but not a huge difference.
posted by eatcherry at 12:29 PM on January 21, 2005


Why would you ask "Are you Canadian?" when normally you'd just ask someone where they're from? Weird...

I think there's some truth in what jalexi says about English people disliking the sound of the American accent - just ask a Brit to do an American accent and brace yourself for an appaling racket. Of course accents vary from person to person so YPMV (your prejudice may vary).

It's worth bearing in mind that huge amounts of television over here is American as well as movies so the American accent really isn't seen as exotic or special anymore (like it was in, say, 1943).

Finally about prejudice against Americans - any Yank with the good taste to check Britain out for themselves can't be all bad!
posted by dodgygeezer at 1:43 PM on January 21, 2005


A (Canadian) friend of mine who has been living in England for the past three years tells me that she often has to correct co-workers who keep referring to her as American. They just don't seem to care about the distinction between Canadian and American.
posted by orange swan at 2:35 PM on January 21, 2005


When I'm walking around in Australia, I tend to fake a british accent (I can't do an australian one). It's really hard to stop once you've started; people treat you slightly better.
posted by Tlogmer at 3:37 PM on January 21, 2005


One thing I noticed as a New Zealander in the UK is that I was blind to the unspoken expectations of others. In a corporate setting this won me a reputation for being blunt, go-ahead and efficient. And I sat outside the class system, which seems still to be in operation. I imagine this works just as well for Americans (and annoys the locals just as much when you blithely do things you're Not Supposed To Do).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:03 PM on January 21, 2005


I've been here nearly five years, and I've only had one person place me as being from Southern California, which was impressive, because, most of the time, if someone mentions my accent, it's because they're trying to chat me up (and failing. Miserably).

I did have some weird looks when I was going to the anti-war protests, though. What, because I'm American doesn't mean I can't protest with y'all?
posted by Katemonkey at 5:26 PM on January 21, 2005


That should be "because I'm American means I can't protest with y'all?"

It is late. And because I wasn't spelling "colour" or "behaviour" or "licence", I cannot blame the differences in English.
posted by Katemonkey at 5:28 PM on January 21, 2005


The Canadian/American accent always makes me smirk. As a former linguist, I can tell some people are identifiable as either American or Canadian, but most are pretty neutral except for a few phrases. I've lived in Canada for almost twelve years. Nobody ever guesses I'm American. They are shocked when I tell them that I was raised in the US, and lived there for 25 years. But once they know, their accents get stiff and they point out small differences. They're confident they know the difference.

Of course when i was a smug Northerner visiting my Florida relatives, I would correct peoples' grammar. (Yes, I was a terrible teen). They would ask me if I was Canadian.

If anyone claims to always know the difference between Canadians and Americans, you should be a little suspicious.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 6:07 PM on January 21, 2005


I can only speak for Northern Ireland (which is socially and politically a lot more conservative than the UK) but I think it wouldn't be much different in this case.

In the "a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing" department, I once correctly identified a new co-worker as a native of Northern Ireland because his cadence reminded me of (F1 driver and Ulsterman) Eddie Irvine - Getting cocky, I guessed two people from Newcastle were Scottish - they were not amused, though I joked that if they were that insulted they should've moved a bit south.
posted by jalexei at 7:02 PM on January 21, 2005


"y'all" ... and you're from SoCal. :) I laugh because I use "y'all" too, and I'm from Seattle! It really is spreading!

"American English, on the other hand, is normally lacking accent, which is why it sounds so boring."

Well, C_D, it sounds as if it's "lacking accent" to you, but it isn't. We all have accents. (I grew up in Seattle, supposedly "accent free", then moved to Minnesota for a while and was promptly asked "Where are you from? You have an accent.") And if you listen to BBC audiostreams for a while, then hear them interview an American with the Standard American accent, you realize that it really is an accent in comparison to what those who have one of the British accents normally expect to hear.
posted by litlnemo at 7:03 PM on January 21, 2005


There are very definite American accents, but they are not as varied as English accents. I can tell if someone is from, say the Fox River valley of Wisconsin, but few Americans can pinpoint the origin of other Americans. Am I wrong? Most British people seem to know where someone was raised without asking.

I definitely get the impression that American accents are a bit of a liability in Britain. One of the odd comments I get is "Oh, you don't sound that American", as in, oh, your accent isn't that ugly.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:47 PM on January 21, 2005


Getting off topic: It was very, very strange to hear Douglas Adams doing an American accent in his reading of the part of So Long and Thanks for All the Fish where Arthur and Fenchurch meet Wonko the Sane.

At a bus stop in Chicago yesterday, I was talking to a man from Jordan, living in Florida, who was very distressed by the snow. I mentioned that I grew up in Georgia, and he immediately said "But you don't have the . . ." and he gestured to his mouth. I figure people are always disappointed that I don't have a southern accent.

Further off topic: Owen Wilson has the most bizarre accent I've ever heard from an American.
posted by rustcellar at 10:19 PM on January 21, 2005


American English, on the other hand, is normally lacking accent

Heehee...
posted by Bugbread at 12:49 AM on January 22, 2005


I'd like to apologize for that previous comment, as it approaches the snarkiness that doesn't belong here. What I should have said was "I assume you are an American or a Canadian, because I haven't heard any non-North American native English speakers say that Americans lack an accent. If you aren't a North American, though, can I ask what your nationality/background is?"
posted by Bugbread at 1:23 AM on January 22, 2005


grouse, the "Are you Canadian?" isn't to imply you should be embarrassed to be American. It's 'cause some Canadians are annoyed by being asked "Are you American?"

And why is that, may I ask? Is it because of Canadian prejudices about Americans? I prefer not to support those prejudices.

Present company excepted, few Americans are annoyed by being asked "Are you Canadian?"

I guess you'd be surprised by how many of my fellow long-term expatriates are also irritated by this.

I'm not bad at telling Australian and New Zealand accents apart, but an Austrailian friend told me it's the same deal -- if you ask, you're safer with "Are you from New Zealand?"

I find "Where are you from?" works just fine. If you want to impress them with how cool you are because you know what an antipodean accent is, then just have a discussion about AU/NZ instead.
posted by grouse at 2:57 AM on January 22, 2005


Also, calling someone from the American south a "Yank" is like calling a Scotsman "English."
posted by grouse at 2:59 AM on January 22, 2005


And why is that, may I ask? Is it because of Canadian prejudices about Americans? I prefer not to support those prejudices.

I dunno about the UK, but I can certainly see how someone could be annoyed about being asked that all the time, just by virtue of the fact that everyone is assuming you're something that you aren't.

The same would apply to Kiwis and Ozzies. If you're a Kiwi, you might not be annoyed if someone asks you if you're an Ozzy once or twice or twenty times, but after the 100th consecutive, "Are you from Australia?", you would probably get annoyed that everyone assumes you're from Australia, and nobody assumes you're from New Zealand. It has nothing to do with prejudice, it has everything to do with people making the same wrong assumption over and over with you.

And whether it's "right" or "wrong" to be annoyed at an innocent question is a separate issue from whether it's actually annoying to be asked the same question over and over again, period. Hell, I'm annoyed at people saying, "Ah, cowboys" whenever I say I'm from Texas, even though we have (some) cowboys. Repetition can be a killer, and repetition of a false assumption must be even more annoying.
posted by Bugbread at 3:09 AM on January 22, 2005


That said, the least irritating question is the one with no assumptions, period, which is "Where are you from?". You have to watch out, though, with an open-ended question like that, because so-called "clever" people will say, "From my hometown" or "From Pangaea". Asking, "Are you a BlahBlahBlahian?" will get you a more direct answer without so much pseudo-cleverness.

And, yeah, I'm one of those obnoxious pseudo-clever people who say "From Pangaea". So the problem to some degree comes from me.
posted by Bugbread at 3:11 AM on January 22, 2005


American English, on the other hand, is normally lacking accent, which is why it sounds so boring.
Everyone has an accent - where we assume 'accent' to be the particular sounds used when articulating any given word. In most major language there is one particular accent/variety which is considered more prestigious or at least neutral (in the UK, RP as described by Pericles; in France, the French of the Loire Valley; and in the USA, perhaps the variety that Civil_Disobedient describes).

Anything other than this neutral variety may well produce the 'cute' effect you describe.... but remember too that even a 'boring' midwestern accent will be foreign to a Brit who's not met many Americans.
posted by altolinguistic at 5:26 AM on January 22, 2005


American English, on the other hand, is normally lacking accent,

I was gonna jump on this too, but others already got to it. What would it mean to "have no accent"? There'd be no way to pronounce the words!

posted by mdn at 7:28 AM on January 22, 2005


And why is that, may I ask? Is it because of Canadian prejudices about Americans? I prefer not to support those prejudices.
Oh, probably because their country is much smaller (by population) and they're used to being treated like Canadians don't exist, like, for instance, by people recognizing their North American accent and assuming they're from the U.S.

Any Canadians want to weigh in on that?
posted by Zed_Lopez at 12:39 PM on January 24, 2005


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