You say tomato, I say screw you

Before I moved across the Pond, I’d heard different things about how New Yorkers viewed English accents, which in the US is referred to as the “British accent”. This is essentially the accent used by the Queen, posho Downton Abbey cast members or possibly Simon Cowell.

A New Yorker colleague told me that while Gothamites might be secretly impressed by my accent, unlike most Americans they would generally never admit it. Others had told me to expect outright indifference. After two months here, I can report that there has been a real mix of reactions, generally falling into one of seven categories. 

  • Indifference – yes, the most common reaction. New York is full of immigrants. Move along, Johnny Foreigner;
  • Fascination – as in, “Oh, you’re British. Let’s talk about football / the Olympics / London / how my family (for which read distant ancestors) are British”;
  • Imitation – most common among shop staff, who delight in responding to you in their best “British accent” (please make it stop);
  • Sarcasm – “Hello, I just moved from London.” – “Oh really? I thought you were from New Jersey”;
  • Admiration – “Oh I just love your accent” etc;
  • Confusion – blank looks, “pardon me?” or a polite smile pretending to understand every word – all very common.
  • Outright sexual interest – as in, “have you been with a woman since moving here to New York?”

I think the weirdest thing is having to translate everything while still sounding markedly English. People do NOT understand “tomahto”. You absolutely have to say “tomayto”. Neither will they tell you where the lifts, the loo or the cutlery is. They will look at you blankly unless you say it in American.

On the other hand, having a British accent does bring other benefits. My boss told me yesterday that my accent makes me sound more intelligent than I actually am. I’m not sure if she was joking….

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