America is pretty much the only country on the planet where the sound of a British/English accent almost always gets an immediate positive reaction. I’ve lived here for more than three decades and strangers still pick up on the accent right away (even though British family and friends reckon I sound “like a bloomin’ yank” but that’s another story).
I’m so used to the positive reaction now that it can be a bit of a shock when it doesn’t happen. When I gave a work-related talk to clients in Sweden some years ago, the reaction was faintly-amused tolerance; “ah yes, the English…” Most Frenchmen can barely disguise the vague sense of disdain. And I once met an Egyptian who became downright hostile as soon as I opened my mouth (which could also be the reaction an English accent would get in certain neighborhoods on the south side of Boston but I’ve never had the guts to test this).
Where Are You From?
Sometimes Americans get a slightly dazed expression, the eyes widen and I have to repeat myself two or thee times before what I’m saying sinks in. This is why I’ve learned to practice a certain form of avoidance; when ordering food, never ever ask for tomato (toh-mah-toe) in the sandwich or the wait-person will freeze up, you’ll have to repeat yourself three times, and the sandwich order will turn out wrong. Better to just get it over with, say “tah-may-doh” and add a silent plea to the ancestors for forgiveness.
It’s not that Americans are not used to hearing an English accent; there are plenty of Brits on TV and half the Hollywood villains seem to sport an upper crust English drawl. But for some reason, unexpectedly hearing one from a live human seems to short-circuit the brain.
Other times, people almost start cooing; you can see the images of Downton Abbey and tea on the lawn dancing behind their eyes. This is usually accompanied by a little gasp and a cry of “oh, where are you from?” This can be charming in a social setting but downright annoying when all you’re trying to do is order something at the local deli counter. Because the next steps of the conversation go something like:
“Oh, which part?”
“Leicester” … blank look … “It’s pronounced Les-tah but spelled l e i c e s t e r.”
Until fairly recently this was just greeted with a beaming smile, and maybe some comment on how cool it is that stuff is pronounced so weird in England. Now it usually elicits either, “oh, is that the place where they found the bones of that king?” or, more often, “is that the place with the soccer team who won some big award that no-one expected?”
And being still an Englishwoman at heart, instead of growling I smile politely and nod (and say another silent plea for forgiveness for not smacking someone who calls LCFC ‘a soccer team’). Eventually you get the sandwich, but it takes a while.
The Right Kind of Accent
Still, this positive reaction can come in very handy in the professional world. When I was working for a large global financial services firm and giving client presentations, I’d turn the accent up a couple of notches toward Home Counties Received English. Clients and contacts seemed to immediately assume this meant I knew what I was talking about. Older people, particularly women, would almost start drooling — I’m not sure they heard a word I said but they always remembered me at future events.
Americans mostly assume that all English accents sound the same — not surprising when the examples they’re exposed to are from shows like Sherlock, Agatha Christie mysteries, and good old Downton. But the sheer breadth and depth of regional English accents would totally flummox most Americans. Someone with a broad regional accent would probably get the dazed expression a lot. I once caught a late night broadcast of the TV show “Dance Mums” that was based in Liverpool; it came with subtitles.
Americans have regional accents too, of course, but the sheer linguistic variation between Maine and Texas just isn’t that great and you have to travel hundreds of miles to hear the difference (although I did once encounter a tour guide in Missouri whose accent for some reason totally baffled me; I understood perhaps half of what she said).
After spending years in London and now the States, my own accent has morphed into something generically southern England — I’m not sure the positive reaction would be the same if I still sounded ‘right Lestah.’ Early on in my American life, people would ask if I was from South Africa, or even Australia. That doesn’t happen any more. I guess I’ve learned to stick to “the right kind of accent.”