Since I’ve spent most of my life among people who speaks the same mother tongue as me, I never reflected much on what words, saying and manners “belong” to what situation and what group, so called sociolects. It’s just something that comes naturally to most of us. We know what words are only used by posh, poor, old, young, men, women, etc. Most of us also instinctively know the rules of a conversation: How it opens, closes, what sort of answers follows a certain type of question and which questions are rhetorical and which are not.
While I often complain that I’m socially awkward and that there’s too many rules in social interaction, I’ve always known without that much effort how these things work in my own language, and have therefore not thought about it too much. But so called sociolects have become an interest of mine lately. I’ve recently moved to England and while I speak pretty good English, but I have a lot to catch up on when it comes to social norms here. For example, when should I answer the question “How are you?” since this can be either a genuine question or a courtesy? Just like in Sweden, it’s only acceptable to give a positive answer if the person asking isn’t your friend. It’s not acceptable to say that you’re feeling fragile and unstable and that you’re plotting your roommate’s demise, even if the woman in Bodyshop asks how you are, although based on my brief experience working in service jobs, I will bet £100 that such things happens to anyone working with customers on at least a weekly basis. I also haven’t completely figured out whether you’re supposed to follow up with “and how are you?”. Instinctively, I think this would be awkward when talking to someone in a service situation, like a waiter or a retail assistant. When talking to someone in a normal situation, I think the best way to work around the awkwardness is to simply be the one to ask first.
I like paying attention to and copying local sayings and non-verbal communication because I think that’s what makes people feel like they can relate to you. In many ways I think this can be harder than learning how to speak a different language. It would probably be easier for me to master how to speak American English without a single hint of my Swedish accent instead of learning how to be as open, loud and boasting as Americans. Yes, the latter part is partially a stereotype, but every language and countries have different social conventions and on an average, people from the US are probably louder and more boasting than Swedes. Scandinavians are considered one of the most silent people in the world, and I’m considered being a quiet person even by Scandinavian standards, so I would have to work pretty hard to adapt American mannerisms.
My favorite part is learning sayings and manners that while they’re linguistically correct aren’t completely acceptable for my gender and age. It’s perfectly acceptable for a 50+ woman to say “you silly sausage” and end every sentence in “dear” or “darling?”. Young to middle age men can end all their sentences with “mate” instead. Only elderly ladies are allowed to say things like “every nook and cranny”. It’s interesting to distinguish which ones are considered normal for which group to use, and it’s IRL-trolling to use all of them despite them being completely inappropriate for whatever group you’re a part of and then play the “well-meaning but ignorant” foreigner card. I sometimes have genuine Zivaism when I change a saying in my head so it makes more sense to me or I just use it in a way that isn’t correct, like when I said that tickets for a musical cost an arm. In my head, that’s the middleground between a normal price and something fancy that costs an arm AND a leg. At least I usually have someone around who isn’t afraid to point out when I make mistakes. The unfortunate part is that I don’t completely trust said person to answer all my questions about social conventions in said country, since said person seems to quite frankly not give a fuck about them or purposefully breaks them, something that I appreciate greatly in a person.
Here’s a little something for you if want to discreetly troll people in a conversation: Try to use the words “pregnant”, “anal”, “erection” and “ejaculate” in completely innocent contexts as many times as you possibly can. Like, “I just want to say that I’m pregnant with anticipation regarding the erection of a new water cooler in the staff room. I’m anal about hygiene and the old water cooler was just pregnant with germs and bacteria! I ejaculated with joy when I heard the news”.
If you don’t think you can use the word “ejaculate” in that context, I refer to the episode of QI when Stephen Fry talks about how many times Watson ejaculated in the Sherlock Holmes novels.
Me? Immature? Never. 😉