“This tea is phenomenal. The cup is exquisite, and your shop is fantastic. The whole experience is totally awesome.”
This is said not by a teenager but by a middle aged American woman in a bookshop that serves tea in Savannah, Georgia. She is well dressed and looks and sounds (most of the time) well educated. The bookshop is a strong one with large sections on poetry and philosophy. The woman’s husband has selected for her a book of Ezra Pound’s poetry.
Does she reflect how she sounds to an overeducated Englishman? Of course she doesn’t, although my accent gave me away immediately. Does she have any self-consciousness about the words she uses? Of course not, and why should she?
I, the overeducated Englishman, conclude that she likes the tea, the cup, and the shop. But is she experiencing one of the highest points in her life? I doubt it, and it would be sad if she was. So what language would she use at such a point? Perhaps she’d respond with silence, but I worry that by using such extreme language about a pleasurable but minor experience, she has nowhere to go when higher points are reached.
She’s not alone. This is how Americans speak, and I’m used to it. When we lived in California for a year I ceased to notice it, although I never adopted it myself. Whenever ever I’m praised by an American, perhaps for a talk or an article, I discount the praise by at least 80%. My discount rate in Britain is lower, but I still discount.
If the woman in the tea shop heard my conversation with the tea connoisseur, which was full of questions and facts and devoid of praise and qualifiers, she might have thought me miserable, depressed, and curmudgeonly. Did I not like the tea? Should I not have made clear to the connoisseur how I loved her tea and her shop even if I didn’t?
Does this difference in language express some differences that are more than cosmetic? I think it does. Americans are positive, can do. They believe in themselves. They fix things. They know that America is the greatest (certainly the most powerful and richest) country on earth, and they believe that things can get only get better for themselves and their country (or at least they did until recently). Their language reflects this positive, forward view of the world.
The British, in contrast, are used to decline and are so steeped in hypocrisy that we don’t take anything at face value. It is very unBritish to be bubbly and enthusiastic; we admire those who are restrained and understated. A dry, sardonic sense of humour is a prized asset.
Although our language differences may reflect deeper differences, I don’t think that anything important would change if we suddenly switched. An upper class friend does mutter “wonderful, wonderful” about many things (and wonderful and great are the words I opt for when wanting to be fulsome), but nobody thinks that he does think whatever it is to be wonderful. It’s just a phrase, and that must be how it is for Americans.
The women selling the tea in the tea shop did not think that her tea was phenomenal, exquisite, fantastic, and awesome. They were just polite words, so when somebody does truly think her tea phenomenal, exquisite, fantastic, and awesome she won’t know. Or perhaps that’s what the Ezra Pound reading, middle aged woman did think. Language is so difficult.