By Monique Nicholls
It is the subtle differences that make us misunderstand, or rather, misunderstood.
Coming from the ‘arse end’ of the world, into a culture and tradition from which we derived and ostensibly share, the intricacies of daily colloquialisms constantly serve to highlight our paradoxical distance rather successfully. A few mumblings and a cocked head remind me that even in just a greeting, the British have a way of cleverly reducing me to ‘lost’ and ‘out of place’, indeed, ‘worlds away’. Endearing as it were, with their cute accent and all, it is the very greeting itself upon which I focus my attention for this particular study — a ‘cultural study’ of sorts. An anthropological comparison, if you will. I won’t, but nonetheless, It poses for me the beginning of many observations on British / Australian differences, and it is only apt that I begin with a short greeting.
“You ‘right?” This common salutation actually means, for the benefit of ‘freshie’ Australians to British soil (and those still confused) “Hello, How Are You?”, or “How’s your day been?”, or “I haven’t met you yet, how’s it going, you having a good one?”.
The expression is not – as we might construe it Down Under – used to show (or feign) sympathy for someone who is upset, hurt, or collapsed. It does not literally mean “Are you alright, because you look really tired, awkward, and a bit distressed?” although it might have the same effect.
When perfected with conceited concern, squinted eyes and a condescending tone, the greeting has, regardless of its un-loaded intention, oftentimes made me feel scrutinised, like I’ve been crying and left the tell-tale residue of tear salt on my face. Or worse – crumbs.
And my reply, still not down pat even after a year of living here, inevitably is the defensive: “Yes”. Or when I first got here: “Yes — why? Is there something on my face?” And still further: “Crumbs?” accompanied also with a sudden panic that I have my skirt tucked into the back of my tights.
As a teacher, I am distanced here even more effectively by the title ‘Miss’ at the end of this greeting. “You right, Miss?” echoed not only by students but fellow teachers down the corridor, in the staffroom, out in the quad… makes me feel like I am perpetually lost. Perplexing still, and most absurdly of all, is the continuation of this greeting, in all its aloofness and formality, down at the pub after school, where there are no students to justify the use of the title ‘Miss’, and where I am definitely not lost. The all-too-familiar “You right, Miss?” uttered by fellow teacher-colleague as I wait for my lager at the bar might one of these days (very soon) just provoke in me what was brewing all along.. “I am Human! I am Woman! I HAVE A NAME! And Yes, I’ll be alright, after this pint! Thank you Sir.”
I guess it goes both ways though (and here I rest my teetering observation of the banal). Upon asking one of my students how he was going, during one casual lapse in Form Registration, he went into a ten minute explanation of where he was heading and by what means of transport, including interchanges and train times. Once again, leaving both parties confused, awkward, and a little dissatisfied in ourselves and in another failed inter-cultural exchange.
Ah, it’s the subtle differences…