May 082009

Sometimes AmE words get exported across the pond, but I can’t find ‘seriousity‘ in the Compact Oxford dictionary. I wonder if it will ever get past UK border controls.

travellersI think the best place to observe seriousity in action is in queues/lines for security at airports. If a security guard plucks an American out of the line at JFK for a thorough check with the wand, everyone’s demeanours will be solemn – the checker, the checkee and all members of the checkee’s travelling party. In a similar situation with Brits at Heathrow, it’s more likely there will be smiles exchanged, a few chuckles and perhaps even a bit of banter about bombs in bags between the checkee and their fellow travellers. There’s almost a social requirement to make light of the situation.

Of course both Americans and Brits love to laugh and joke, but humour is more likely to extend into serious contexts for Brits. Somehow they seem to provide irresistible opportunities for irony, which of course makes it tricky for Americans (and many other foreigners). How can they know whether we mean what we’re saying or whether we’re just joking around? Heck, in British conversations, I’m not sure whether I mean what I’m saying or just joking around a lot of the time.

So anyway, I can’t see seriousity making it in the UK. But I mention it because it’s something to bear in mind if you’re a Brit trying to speak ‘merican.

 Posted by at 2:18 pm

  7 Responses to “Seriousity”

  1. This brings back memories of flying back to ‘good old Europe’ from JFK.

    Security asked me whether:

    1. I had packed my bag myself.
    2. I’d had my bags with me the whole time.
    3. they contained half a dozen items that most people would never dream of putting inside their suitcase unless they were serious terrorists… (And if they had, they certainly wouldn’t tell the security staff at JFK they’d packed half a dozen bombs or submachine guns in their dirty washing).

    My answers to those questions were perfectly honest:

    1. No, my wife helped me.
    2. No, I’ve been in the USA for three weeks and have been lucky enough to be able to leave my luggage in the odd hotel room now and again.
    3. You forgot to ask me about detonators.

    I could have kicked myself for saying that because security then demanded that I unpack everything!!!

    Don’t mess with people who have any kind of authority in the USA, they don’t seem to understand tongue in cheek comments… or obvious (for British folk) jokes.

    In fact, most people who are employed ‘by’ an authority, rather than being ‘in’ authority are difficult in my opinion.

    Anyway, one thing I’m quite sure sure of is that Americans have a serious problem trying to understand sarcasm and the British dry-sense-of-humour.

  2. This reminds me of a Bill Bryson anecdote.
    The US has restrictions on meat and vegetable products that can be brought into the country. Bill Bryson was passing through US immigration and customs one day when an official asked “Any fruit or vegetables?”. Bill quipped “Sure, why not, I’ll have four pounds of potatoes and some mangoes if they’re fresh.”
    The interesting thing was the official’s response. “Sir,” he said, “are you carrying any items of a fruit or vegetable nature?”
    Now an interpretation of that from a British frame would be that the official didn’t get the joke, but I doubt it’s quite that simple.
    I suspect the official got the joke, found the lack of seriousity unbefitting for the occasion, wondered whether it was worth pinning Bill to the floor and getting out his rubber gloves, thought better of it, took pity on him, decided to pretend it hadn’t happened and hence he feigned coming to the conclusion that Bill was just incredibly thick.
    So I think Bill had a lucky escape. But of course I could be wrong.

  3. […] interpreted as an embarrassed smile sometimes in the UK could be interpreted as a smirk in the US. Seriousity is an American behaviour and an appropriate behaviour for a congressional hearing on a grave issue. […]

  4. […] yesterday and have been thinking about her idea that Americans are expected to demonstrate “seriosity“, a lack of which is seen as cynical and subversive. Vicki thinks that seriosity […]

  5. I know this is more than a year late, but I’m going to comment anyway. 🙂

    In the U.S., there are certain things you just don’t joke about in certain places or situations. Joking about bombs and terrorists on a security line in a major international airport just seems pretty foolish to me. I don’t know…maybe it’s ’cause I’m ‘merican.

  6. Amy! Welcome and thank you for commenting! I was thinking about this just today oddly enough, so you are actually very current.

    Daft as it must seem when I wear my ‘merican glasses, I’ve seen Brits do precisely this and it seemed perfectly appropriate when I was wearing my British glasses. Standing in the queue/line at Heathrow waiting to go through security, folks were being pulled out for checking with their new scanner system. They pulled a couple who were part of a larger party and asked them to step this way. The rest of the Brits in the party immediately started cracking jokes with the couple and the security guard, along the lines of ‘Oh, you’ve picked the right ones there’ ‘You always had a dangerous look about you, John’, ‘I bet they’ve got all kind of explosives in their bag’ and you will no doubt be surprised to know that the British security guard was chuckling away with them. (Laughter is a great diffuser of embarrassment.) I’m not sure it would have registered as being anything noteworthy to me if I hadn’t been standing with some Americans who were looking decidedly surprised!

  7. […] interpreted as an embarrassed smile sometimes in the UK could be interpreted as a smirk in the US. Seriousity is an American behaviour and an appropriate behaviour for a congressional hearing on a grave issue. […]

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