One could often be forgiven for thinking that Australia and America are similar, veritable brothers in fact. After all, so much pop-culture, trends and media binds us together, like high school sweethearts holding on to a shared experience behind the bus shelter. Recently though I have confronted several glaring differences, a gulf so vast as to leave me bewildered – catatonic in some cases – and want for an explanation, which has ultimately led to a post dedicated, and ultimately celebrating, that which sets us apart from one another. After all, it is this difference that results in members of both nationalities riding in a steel coffin for 15 hours.
Hey mate, pass me some paper will ya?
Australian men chat while going to the toilet. This is practically unthinkable in America (unless of course the males in question are attending a bachelor party, football game or some other intoxication-based event). After all, what self-respecting man wants to chew over current events while holding his penis in his hands, while his conversation compatriot is clasping his own as well. This social idiosyncrasy was brought home to me on occasion during my recent first week of gainful employment, when no less than three new colleagues greeted me at the urinal. The conversation unfolded as follows:
“Hey mate, how’s the first week going?” Zzzzziiiiipppppp, tinkle tinkle, tinkle.
“Fine, fine… thanks for asking.” Oh, God, he just asked me a question while pulling his junk out of his pants.
“So tell me again where you are from… America eh. Not been there myself… hang on…aaaahhhhhh, as you get older the stream gets weaker, ya know what I mean.” Dribble, dribble, tinkle, tinkle, “Ahhh there she goes again,” shake, shake.
“Well I’m all done here, I’ll see you later…” if I can just slip out real quick…
“Everyone here is real nice, easily the nicest place I’ve ever worked, you must be real happy”
“Yeah, everyone is nice,” please just let me go, can’t we talk about this at the water cooler like normal people, I don’t need to watch you shake off the dribble, mate!
Need I say more? In America if a man speaks to you in the toilet chances are he will also breathe heavily behind your ear and whisper sweet nothings… that or shiv you with a rusty breadknife. On the other hand, America maintains a fervent tradition of informal male-to-male contact, resulting in a plethora of high fiving, fist bumping, back slaps and socially acceptable side-hugging. Coming from Australian culture where the sum total physical contact from another male was a wrist-crushing handshake (or maybe a little institutionalized bum-cheek slapping while playing football), this preoccupation left me looking confused every time an American buddy proffered a fist with a look that said, “Go on… touch it with your knuckles.”
Jesus… it’d freeze the balls off a brass monkey out here mate!
America has four distinct seasons. Oh, I know that Florida weather is constantly the same, as it is in California, Alaska and Hawai’i, but I think that there is a fair argument that those states aren’t really part of the United States to begin with… what with their frontiersmen, senior citizens, native islanders and the Japanese. But in real America the seasons switch (often as if like clockwork) four times each year. A summer that is hot, an autumn (fall) that sees all the trees turn and cold windy weather arrive, a winter with snow and ice and a spring with blooming plants, animals fresh from a long sleep and weather that finally allows you to go outside without the chance of death from exposure. In Australia however, we have summer and… not summer. Oh, it’s all great at the moment as I sit here under a tree in the warm summer sun, but come May when it is a little cold, sometimes rainy, and not presenting the remotest opportunity for a decent snowfall, I’m sure I will be pining for the States. At the risk of sounding conceited, there is only so much of this sunny warm weather a person can take. And with that comment 145 million British citizens will now want to kill me!
Another little social irritant occurs because Australia seems not to adhere to the philosophy that every free thinking individual has a right to napkins/serviettes. Australian food establishment workers dole out these dining necessities like Stalinist Russia instead of capitalist pig-dogs! Conversely, the US of A considers an excess of wiping paraphernalia a sovereign right, much like assault rifles! If your dining table, upon arrival, does not hold a dispenser for easy dispersal, a server will certainly soon supply you with an abundance of napkins, as if to say, “You look like a messy eater.”
“Get out of the way… ya dickhead!”
Everyone knows that half the world drives their cars on the right, while the other motor on the left, but few understand how this anomaly came to pass. Romans took to driving to the left of one another after a spate of pedestrian vs. chariot encounters resulted in too many losses of toga-clad saunterers. This tradition of bearing to the left was also common in ancient Greece and Egypt where soldiers marched to the left of others oncoming. These traditions carried forward into Europe where soldiers passed on the left in order to maximize sword-drawing opportunities. Great Britain, it appears, was the most enthusiastic proponent of this. The age of the Empire delighted in “making the world British, what, what” and spread the habit to all colonized lands, hence in Australia we drive on the left. Americans, daring to be different, evolved towards the right-side after teamsters (who sat on the rear left-side horse in order to use their whip right-handed) preferred it to left hand passing because it allowed them to watch the wheels of other passing wagons. But anyway, who really gives a shit.
Down here we speak the Queen’s English ya cheeky bugger!
Somewhere in the history of the English language an American, in typical American fashion, thought that the English language needed some improvement. It would be fair to say that English is a difficult language to learn, as my meager attempt here fully highlights. We have rules that guide the construction and manipulation of words and phrases, but inevitably these rules are always broken. Particular words retain letters that have no role in the pronunciation, but are derived from ancient spelling of parent words. All this was too much for Americans and rumor has it that Benjamin Franklin himself pioneered the revision of nothing less than the whole English language, American style. Here in Australia an audacious task like this would never occur to even our most enlightened thinkers. We tend to accept things as they always have been; perhaps this is why America has (until recently) been the most influential country of the 20th and 21st centuries. Franklin’s early work was picked up by a teacher called Noah Webster who, these many years later, still maintains an important position in official “American English” as part of the title of America’s official dictionary, The Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
Webster’s efforts often focussed/focused around the simplification of words, omitting letters that served no clear purpose and adjusting words for simplified spelling. Hence we now encounter the removal of the u in words such as harbour/harbor and colour/color, the adjustment of the re/er in centre/center, fibre/fiber, andthe swapping of c for an s in defence/defense. Americans did not understand how the English could say organise with a clear z sound at the end and created organize and realise/realize. Dialogue/dialog and catalogue/catalog received the simplification treatment, as did (my favourites/favorites) diarrhoea/diarrhea, faeces/feces and mediaeval/medieval.
They dropped the e as in ageing/aging, likeable/likable and the extra l in words such as traveller/traveler. Marvellous/marvelous examples such as mum/mom and tyre/tire seem to defy explanation. The result of all of this word-smithing… word-tinkering if-you-will, is complete confusion, only re-enforcing English’s reputation as the most perplexing of languages. Adding to this general confusion is the Australian tendency to abbreviate words by taking the first syllable and adding some vowels (or perhaps another letter) to the end. Following this convention results in the following: cuppa = cup of tea or coffee, sanga = sandwich, pressie = present/gift, bikkie = biscuit, breakkie = breakfast and doco = documentary. Tradies/Tradespeople often adopt a shortened version of their particular vocation (although it often focusses/focuses on an attribute of their work) as in a chippy = carpenter, sparky = electrician and bricky = mason/bricklayer. Names are also shortened often unmercifully so Christopher becomes Chrissy, Samuel = Sammy, Marcus = Markie (oh God), Anyone with Mc or Mac as a prefix for their surname is universally known as Macka while McDonalds is commonly called Macca’s. Confusing, eh!
Crikey cobber, let’s go drink some piss!
To pile on this linguistic conundrum are the profusion of slang words in Australia. The world famous G’day is only the veritable tip-of–the-iceberg with fair dinkum, dinky-di, yonks, bludger, bloke, sheila, paddock and hoo-roo all in common usage. Just in case the last sentence left your mind spinning, in order they mean the truth, an authentic Australian, a long time, a lazy person, a male, a female, a fenced in field and goodbye. The word bush refers to a general forested area or a rural area (as opposed to the city) instead of a small, scrubby plant. In America standout slang revolves around exclamation based prefixes, for example the use of the word uber, as in “that chick is uber-hot” or “last night was mega-huge!” Americans (especially teenage girls of a particular social demographic are fond of the linguistic filler like, using it as a sort of comma between moments of thought, as if their brains cannot like keep up with the like stream of like verbiage like coming out of their like mouths.
The word fanny causes some considerable consternation between Ozzies and Yanks as it means two very, very different parts of the anatomy to both. To Americans, your fanny is your bottom, a bodily feature they also refer to as an ass. In Australia an ass is a donkey, your arse is also your bum. Your fanny… well let’s just say that if an American was to ask an Australian to put on a fanny pack the Australian would first guffaw their drink out through their nose before putting the item in front of a woman’s crotch. Finally, I submit Ya’ll, a contraction of you all and is used daily by my wonderful wife to refer to groups of people of either sex and reminds us that you can move the girl out of the south but you can never take the south out of the girl… yeeeeeehaaaaaaa!
Differences aside, Ozzies and Yanks generally delight in interacting with each other, finding that they have more in common than they originally thought. But it is in the differences that we draw satisfaction. Who really wants to go halfway around the world to taste the same food, drink that same drink and see that same old shit that you have at home? In this world of global media, social conformity and frequent international travel, I hope that both Ozzies and Yanks continue to embrace and reinforce these differences. In conclusion to this article I wish to submit an example of American slang near and dear to my heart, which is the famous hillbilly triple negative “I don’t pay no never mind.” This is really just a long-winded way for uneducated shit-kickers to tell you that they don’t care. Hearing it in public causes an immediate halt in all conversation as you look around to see which skinny, bib-overalled, missing-toothed cretin just used this phrase. And with that my friends, we can conclude this little missive into cultural differences with an Australia shit-kicker’s response… “Ave a go, ya mug!”