In many ways, America is surprisingly coy and uptight. This may come as a surprise to many, given that American popular culture is laced with sex and violence. I’m still a bit shocked at the overt sexual innuendo on regular network TV shows like Two-and-a-Half Men, which broadcasts quite early in the evening.
But, everyday discourse is laced with all sorts of coy phrases to avoid invoking anything to do with death or the toilet; and swearing is a big no-no.
Not true, of course, but Americans are notably squeamish about any discussion of death. In part this may be part of the whole “optimistic Americans think they’ll live for ever” thing (Fundamental Differences: Britain vs USA).
But, no-one here dies. Instead, they “pass away,” “pass over,” or just plain “pass” — as in “he passed yesterday.” Which always makes me want to retort: “What, was he a kidney stone?”
When I told people earlier this year that a very close relative had died they would visibly flinch, then say something like: “Oh, she passed? I’m so sorry for your loss.” No, she didn’t “pass” and I didn’t misplace her somewhere. She’s gone. And I don’t see that refusing to call it what it is can help someone grappling with extreme grief. Hearing anyone describe death as “passing” just makes me want to smack something. But that’s just me.
Also, no-one in America uses the toilet. Instead, it’s called the bathroom or, even more baffling, the restroom.
Some years ago, wending my way through the exhausted chaos of Heathrow airport arrivals one morning, I overheard a jet-lagged American woman approach a friendly British copper and ask where she could find the nearest “restroom.” Bemused, he scratched under his helmet and said, “Well, madam, there are some comfy chairs in the arrivals hall; I suppose you could rest there?” Mutual incomprehension ensued. I was on the other side of a barrier so couldn’t come to her rescue; I have no idea if she ever found relief.
And don’t bother looking for — or asking for — toilet paper in the shops. It’s coyly called “bathroom tissue.” And even adults will routinely use infantile words like “peepee” or “poopie.” Someone once warned me: “Oh, you’re almost out of peepee paper in your bathroom, dear.” Good grief. Maybe there are more earthy words in some regions, although I’ve never heard them. Fortunately, I can use the word “loo” quite freely and people find it amusing.
Which takes us to swearing. Plenty of people (like me!) swear with impunity and on cable TV there are F-bombs aplenty. Yes, that’s what they’re called — as in “OMG, I can’t believe she just dropped an F-bomb!” Pretty obvious what it stands for. Again, coyness abounds. Conversely, there are no holds barred on paid/cable TV (think Game of Thrones, True Blood, or Orange Is The New Black).
But, you will never ever hear any kind of swear word on broadcast network TV at any time of day or night. There is a general concept of safe harbor, meaning that “inappropriate” content should not be broadcast during “family friendly” daytime and early evening hours. So shows like CSI or Elementary, which have “adult themes” (murder, drug use, prostitution) are generally not broadcast until after 9:00pm — although given how much rebroadcasting there is the concept is a bit laughable. Even so, you will never hear a cast member on CSI swearing while going about the gruesome business of collecting samples from a half-decayed corpse.
And, what Americans consider swearing would be laughable if it weren’t so bloody annoying. I’ve seen TV shows where they bleep out “God damn” or change “damn” into “dang”. “Hell” gets replaced with “heck” and anything stronger is just bleeped out altogether. Which makes certain reality shows pretty much unwatchable (well, they’re unwatchable for a lot of reasons, but the incessant beeping doesn’t help).
I’m actually typing this up at a local garage at 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon as my car gets worked on, while the TV in the corner is broadcasting a staggeringly awful daytime “reality” show about the horrendous things some men do to their wives (The Maury Show). Every time someone swears (which is a lot) it gets beeped out; but, the obvious references to how these men treat their women and the “sexual acts” they expect is just fine. And this at 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon.
So, despite the early-evening “safe harbor” concept, with adult discourse supposedly allowed after about 9:00pm, it’s hard to tell the difference. Two-and-a-Half-Men is OK, but hearing someone utter the word damn is not?! A British TV show like The Thick Of It would never get picked up by broadcast American TV; aside from the political references not translating well, the sound editors just wouldn’t be able to get the script to make sense after all their edits.
Conversely, Americans have no qualms about discussing how much something costs or their personal religious beliefs (subjects no proper Englishwoman would dream of discussing in casual conversation). And they have zero reticence about discussing medical issues. There are adverts aplenty on TV at all times of day for everything from viagra to tampons to hemorrhoid medicines.
So, you can talk about grandad’s need for viagra but not about him dying; you can tell everyone about how Jesus is your personal saviour but you can’t ask where the toilet is; and at 7:30 in the evening your kids can see a well-known comic actor talking in a TV show about how long it’s been since he last got laid, but at no time will you hear him talking about needing to go for a shit.