Sep 232009

A big thank you to Ken Wilson and Sue Lyon-Jones for reminding me of a curious thing my ‘merican husband says.

He’s cooked a nice meal and it’s time to wash up and he says: ‘Would you like to clear up?’ Why does he think I would like to clear up? Apparently Sue’s husband uses this line too and with wonderful scouse frankness and logic she responds:

Not really. I’d rather carry on sitting here with my feet up, drinking a glass of wine…

Meanwhile in the Wilson household, things seem to have got more advanced over the decades. His wife Dede knows ‘Do you want to do the dishes?’ isn’t going hack it and she seems to be seeking a compromise because he reports:

Dede has recently replaced this with the statement “I’ll let you do the dishes.” Which makes it sound like something I’ve been straining at the leash to do all day!

Ha! And yet Americans have a reputation for being plain speaking sorts who call a spade and spade and say it like it is. I wonder what other misunderstandings this could have caused over the years. tea_partyMight someone in Boston have written home in 1773 saying:

“Hey, would you like to forget about the tax due on this tea?”

 Posted by at 8:22 am

  2 Responses to “A curious invitation”

  1. To give someone a direct order, or even to make a direct request, violates American notions of equality. So what you are really being asked is “Are you willing to clear up?” If you are willing, you go and do it; if not, you make a fuss. The relative levels of fuss between you and the person asking you will eventually determine who does what.

    This is between intimates; between more emotionally distant pairs such as friends, there may be a level of fuss and counter-fuss: “Oh, I’ll do it” — “No, let me.”

  2. Great to hear from you again John! This all adds up but, and it’s a big BUT for me, Brits seem to share a similar reluctance to give someone a direct order in other very similar circumstances. I reckon its an Anglo English thing – so common to Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand English as well. Rather than this being about equality, I think we all feel a need to emphasise that the other person is autonomous and can make their own decision and that’s what sets these anglo-English varieties apart. So what we’re looking at here is the same custom in operation, but when it comes to the context of doing the washing up, a slight variation has evolved.

    I think the counter-fuss thing you mention also goes on in British English too and its perhaps best exhibited in the UK when we’re buying rounds in a pub:
    “This one’s mine”
    “No, no let me”
    “But I insist”
    The conversation can go on for ages and the guy that wins the social sweepstakes is the guy who pays.

    Oh the curious social webs we weave!

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