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This Tweet, forwarded by Peter Ginna, made me think about this perennial transatlantic miscommunication problem.

Americans are just more direct. They tend to call a spade a spade: well that’s not quite right: it’s in emotional situations that this is true. When around simple nouns Americans tend to reach for tortuous circumlocution. It’s in areas where the emotions come into play, especially in cases where telling someone off is called for that the Brits wimp out. In this example the words “I was under the impression” provide an excellent example. Hearing these words a Brit is going to be instantly aware of having made a mistake, while an American is likely to think: “No problem. We all make mistakes. Too bad your impression was wrong”.

Once upon a time I was in a meeting in New York where the English editorial chief came over and ripped into our US editors for some practice they had gotten up to. He really laid it on thick, saying “I don’t think X is really the best approach”; “If it were me, I wouldn’t do X”; “I really don’t think X is a good idea”; “One would much rather see Y”; “Y is really a much more responsible course of action”; even rising to the embarrassing (to a Brit) crescendo of “One would surely feel embarrassed to be known to have done X”. Even though I wasn’t an editor, my ears were buzzing. As we filed out, one of the US editors right behind me said to his colleague “Well, that’s great. He didn’t tell us not to do X”. And of course he hadn’t told them not to do it: words that direct are unlikely to pass the lips of any trad Brit not in military service. British people don’t react well to being ordered about. Service with a snarl is more likely to be the outcome of a peremptory order than service with a smile. But any British person in the audience would have known perfectly well they’d been forbidden to do anything approaching X: tragically for the messenger, the only other Brit in the room was me, who had nothing to do with the matter. Was I wrong to say nothing? I don’t really think so: it’s not really my problem if someone can’t express themselves clearly. These boss men had had enough experience dealing with the wild west to know better. And I suspect that X, something which I genuinely cannot recall, was probably not any life or death matter.

We are in a pendulum-swing phase where management of lots of publishing companies in America is ultimately coming from the other side of the Atlantic. No doubt happy miscommunication of this sort is alive and well.

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