WEEKEND | Surviving America: I say “tomato,” you hear “potato”

I want to be nice — I really do. I might swear sometimes (nobody is perfect), but I try my best not to deliberately insult people. And I was pretty good at it, until I got to New Haven.

The culture is different here; I get that. People drink eggnog instead of eating Christmas cake, and Smarties are colorful, tart, sugary tablets instead of colorful, chocolatey, sugar-coated globs. But by and large, it’s really hard to become accustomed to all of these differences. Never mind my accent, the great risks I take when I try to “jaywalk” and my complete ignorance when confronted with conventions like TLDR and [sic?] — the real struggle comes from trying to communicate with others without confusing them or (even worse) pissing them off.

For example, I recently offended a good friend of mine when I said that I thought it was rude of her to watch “Grey’s Anatomy” in my common room without wearing her headphones. Perhaps it was my tone or my facial expression. Maybe I shouldn’t have told her it was alright to watch the show a few minutes earlier. Either way, I was confused.

I thought wearing headphones was implied in my response. What did I say that was wrong? Why were the headphones even that important to me? This kind of thing would not have happened back in Cyprus. All of this linguistic incertitude would have been unheard of.

But this wasn’t a problem of language comprehension (I get what the words mean, really!); it was an idiomatic dilemma. Phrases and innuendos, like those that I can easily juggle in Greek, have become harder to handle. In the past I had been linguistically spoiled. I didn’t have to try so hard to match what I meant with what the other person heard.

In an attempt to make up for these shortcomings, I attended a few talks on the subject (but seriously). These ended up being nothing more than a crash course on the variety of vulgar curses and bawdy euphemisms American culture has to offer, in addition to the different anatomical functions to which they refer. All a bit useless, considering my previous obsession with B movies, rock radio channels and trashy magazines had already prepared me for all of those things.

So don’t take my “headphone” comments to heart. They don’t mean that I hate you; I’m just conceptually constrained. Next time, blame my lack of savoir faire on my “exotic” upbringing. That’s what I do.

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