72

I am not a person of colour and I do not pretend to understand the struggle of those who endure racial discrimination, prejudice and persecution based on their race or ethnic background.

However, because I am a white British person in America, it seems to be acceptable for my colleagues to speak either at me in to others in my company in an attempted British accent, or to reply to my emails highlighting the differences in our spelling (the British 'colour' instead of American 'color' and so on).

I understand that Americans for the most part like and respect the British, therefore is it ok for them to mock my accent as in their mind it's all in good sport and just a non-malicious bit of fun?

I do not hear them attempting to imitate the accent of my Indian colleague, a gentleman of the Hindu faith with brown skin.

How can I get my American colleagues to stop mocking and imitating my accent and spelling? Is this something I can/should take up with HR?

  • 8
    Are they mocking it maliciously? Or imitating it because it is exotic and foreign? There's not much you can do about the latter other than finding a new job/department with more worldly/intelligent peers, but the former can be submitted to HR, even if it is lighthearted. "It's only a joke if everyone is laughing", etc. – TylerH May 27 '15 at 13:31
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    You could try something playful like saying, "You're going the right way for a smack bottom" (Shamelessly stolen from Shrek), or more severe, like, "Shut your gobs, you tossers". – Dave May 27 '15 at 19:50
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    They're just jealous that you know proper English and they don't. – CodesInChaos May 27 '15 at 20:13
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    In America, you should use american spelling. Even though it's not proper. :) – Matt May 27 '15 at 20:40
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    Go into work tomorrow and tell them it's monarch day, and that means you're their king/queen. Have them bring you things and serenade you, and eventually have them executed for high treason. You don't have to go through with it, but you should get a guillotine just in case. – Ian Newson May 27 '15 at 21:14

10 Answers 10

167

As a (male, white) Brit who has worked in the US for over 15 years, the best advice I can give you is embrace it and join in. Of course people have picked up on my accent many times and poked fun at it - but it's rarely malicious.

I jokingly made it known in my office that I was the "Keeper of the Queen's English" any time someone picked me up on spelling, and point out that "we invented it, so I maintain that my way is correct".

Similarly, we often joke about how only one country can ever win the "World" Series, or why Scotch is obviously superior to Bourbon. Or whether I should be allowed to take the 4th of July off as a holiday.

Just keep it light and enjoy the fact most people are interested in you and your background.

Of course, if it turns into discrimination, that is a different issue.

In response to comments, I don't think my answer is to "get over it" at all. It's to recognize the fact that British people stand out in the US rather than ignore it. That cannot be avoided. For the first 6 months I lived here, every time I opened my mouth to speak I noticed how different I sounded from everyone else. It made me self-conscious and slightly uncomfortable. I'm not a naturally gregarious person (which is another difference I needed to recognize and adapt to). Ultimately though, it's easier to control how I react to other people than to control how the entire US population reacts to me.

63

They could think they're "just having a little fun", or they could be completely oblivious. Either way, when dealing with a difference about personal interactions in the workplace, it's generally best to start with the coworkers themselves. If they first hear that you were offended -- and from what you've said, they'll know the complaint came from you -- because HR or their managers had a private chat with them, that's going to be awkward. You want a good relationship with your coworkers, so don't go there unless you have to.

When I've seen teasing in the workplace it's usually come primarily from one or two people, with others just piling on. Can you identify the ringleader(s)? If so, try talking with one of them privately and saying something like this:

I realize you're just joking around, but when you tease me about my spelling or imitate my accent I feel uncomfortable. Could you please stop doing that?

Note the "when you do X I feel Y" language; you're reporting an observation and a personal feeling, not making an accusation. Don't ascribe malice or intent. Assume he has no idea that what he's doing bothers you, and correct that impression.

Note also that I suggested a private conversation. Don't send email; that can escalate. You want something synchronous, ideally face to face (but if IM or the phone is your only option, that's still better than email). He needs to see it as a friendly conversation, nothing bigger -- like email that you might later forward to HR.

If it's an honest mistake this should mostly take care of it, at least from him. If he does it again, you can try "hey, do you mind?" before you redirect the conversation.

Depending on how the communication lines work in your workplace, talking with one person might be enough. He might well have a quiet word with some of his coworkers. Or, if somebody does this to you in his hearing, he might say "hey, let's not do that" -- major victory if that happens. If others seem to not be getting the word, then have private chats with them as above.

  • 14
    Good post, however the wording of what you suggest the OP should say to the primary culprits seems a bit formal. What about something along the lines of "Hey, Is there any chance you could please ease up on the jokes about my British English? I know they are harmless, it's just I'm not really a fan of them." – Adrian773 May 27 '15 at 4:06
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    With these type of question, I see to many people trying to come up with "comes back". It's often better to just be honest. – the_lotus May 27 '15 at 12:46
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    @Adrian773 the Brits I've worked with -- a small sample, but the only one I have -- have tended to be more formal and deferential than the Americans. The OP should of course adjust this phrasing to what comes naturally to him; this was my best shot at what that might be. – Monica Cellio May 27 '15 at 12:55
35

As a Brit myself, I'd say that you should probably fix your spelling. I'd expect a USian living in the UK to have to do likewise for business writing. It's pretty difficult, but not as hard as a completely foreign language. Think of yourself as EFL, use a dictionary and a spellchecker and accept corrections from colleagues. If you can develop the skill to switch accurately between US and UK spelling and style, then you'll have a genuinely useful ability as far as formal writing is concerned.

Outward-facing written communication should be done per a style guide, which probably says or implies US English, and if so then anything else is wrong. If there's no formal style guide then you should still be trying to find the company's voice. In the unlikely event the style guide actually says, "any dialect of English is fine", then when they remark on your spelling just point out there's nothing to correct here, they're wasting everyone's time banging on about it, and probably have work to get on with.

Internal written communication can be done in British English, or for that matter in French or -izzle speak, but if people are raising it as an issue even in apparent jest, then it's probably worth fixing.

Your accent shouldn't be a problem, though, unless it's genuinely unintelligible in a way that's affecting the business (you're not from Swaledale, right, and speaking local dialect?). Even the BBC doesn't have a required accent any more. For them to remark on yours is one thing, it's unusual to them. Be aware that a lot of USians actually like British accents, and of course are somewhat familiar with them from TV if not face to face, so they might not be intending to mock it at all. One thing to try is to play along by correcting them when they try to imitate you, and see if that leads to a more comfortable experience for you: "rock. No, not raack, rock. Not rorck, either. Rock". But if they are intentionally parodying it or otherwise mocking it then that's a personal attack of sorts.

You have to judge how aggressive this workplace is, and what it tolerates. You'd think that sustained mockery of a colleague would be unacceptable everywhere, but it isn't. Extreme case, if you're working as an NFL player then your employer has worse forms of abuse to deal with before they get to people making fun of your accent. If you're willing to put up with it as a form of hazing that's just the price you pay for being foreign, then try to see it as funny and insult them in return. But if the workplace is basically civilized, then treat it as you would other personal mockery: quietly ask them to stop without making a big deal of it. This reveals whether they really were doing it in fun or in order to make you uncomfortable: if it was just fun, then they'll stop when they realise you don't enjoy it. If they don't stop, then they delight in making you uncomfortable, which means they're bullying you, and unfortunately you'll need to escalate. A civilized employer will want to deal with bullying regardless of whether or not you have any standing on the basis of a protected characteristic.

  • 16
    +1 for "a lot of USians actually like British accents" and "One thing to try is to play along by correcting them when they try to imitate you." Yup. A lot of us not-so-secretly think that British accents, especially posh ones, are classy and even sexy. That's why we try so hard to imitate them, even if we don't realize what a bad job we're doing of it. Playing along with the game is a good way to defuse the situation. – dodgethesteamroller May 27 '15 at 14:37
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    @dodgethesteamroller I've heard it said that the reason why American films so often have villains with English accents is that it's an accent associated with intelligence, signalling to the viewer that this character is more dangerous than they might look and has tricks up their sleeve. Curiously, British films and TV often use posh English accents to signal the exact opposite - bumbling characters who got what they have through privilege not ability (e.g. almost every character Hugh Laurie played before House). – user568458 May 29 '15 at 10:48
  • @user568458 I think you're right, considering this: youtube.com/watch?v=e7gR7EYjcP8 – dodgethesteamroller May 29 '15 at 18:30
24

I am British, and have lived in the USA since 1975.

For business writing, I switched to American spellings immediately, even though I had to do it initially without the benefit of spell-checkers. Once spell-checkers became available, I used them, set to USA for everything except mail to family.

For spoken English, I developed a standard response: "I don't have an accent, I am just surrounded by people with American accents." said as a joke.

I have only had one case of someone who just wouldn't back off even after I directly asked him to stop commenting on my English. Fortunately, it was a contractor doing some work on my house, so I could fire him.

  • 14
    Your "I don't have an accent" response is a nice way to recast the situation without being snarky or escalating. – Monica Cellio May 27 '15 at 12:57
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    I've heard it expressed as "I'm not speaking with an accent, you're listening with one". – Jenny D May 27 '15 at 13:37
  • There were spellcheckers in 1975? – blarg May 28 '15 at 8:43
  • @blarg No, no spellcheckers in 1975. That is exactly why "I had to do it initially without the benefit of spell-checkers." – Patricia Shanahan May 28 '15 at 9:30
6

As an American, I'm going to say that all of these people are fools or at least they're choosing to act like one. Usually, they say you should ignore unwanted behavior. You may feel you've done this, but if you show the slightest bit annoyance, these types of people tend to feed off of that.

You can try and set your spellcheck to change your British spellings to American ones. For internal email, it's not a big thing, but when corresponding with clients who are unaware of the alternate and still correct spellings, your company may feel like it makes them look bad because of you "poor" spelling.

If it gets in the way of your work, you may need to talk to HR. Time is money.

  • I doubt there are many people that are not familiar with colour being British spelling. I'd be wondering more why someone in the UK was responding to my email though. – Andy May 29 '15 at 0:16
3

Explain how you feel. Your coworkers probably don't mean to hurt your feelings, and if they knew you were really offended they'd probably stop. Appeal to their better nature. When you have a moment alone with one or two of them, say something like: I don't know if you've ever moved to a different country, but I feel quite out of place all the time even without you constantly reminding me that I don't fit in with the rest of you.

Let the boss know. Friendly ribbing is one thing, but if it's impacting your work or how you feel at work, they've gone too far. If you can't stop it yourself with a polite explanation, your manager should be willing and able to put an immediate end to the problem. Likewise, it's certainly something that you can take up with HR, although trying to solve the problem yourself first might work better.

Know that they wish they were you. Deep down, we Americans secretly wish we could trade our soft D's, hard R's, and schwas for the lovely precision of a British accent. That doesn't make it okay for them to tease you, but it might bother you less if you know that the teasing is probably more about them and less about you.

Turnabout is fair play. Watch some sitcoms or, better, westerns, and really develop a caricature of the American accent. If they can do a lousy British accent, you can do a lousy American accent. Don't be too funny about it, though -- they might want to get you to do it more.

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    Turnabout is a bad move. By doing as they do, you're telling them that their behaviour is appropriate, which is the exact opposite of the message you're trying to give. – David Richerby May 27 '15 at 21:04
2

Learn to change your spelling, at least: it's not that difficult to change.

For example: as a Canadian, I'd spell it "colour"; but as a technical writer, for an American employer or client, I'd spell it "color".

  • When you're programming, "color" is much more likely to be a keyword than "colour". Sort of like how "ad nauseam" is more likely to be misspelled than not. – Spehro Pefhany May 28 '15 at 10:34
2

For context I'm an American.

How can I get my American colleagues to stop mocking and imitating my accent and spelling? Is this something I can/should take up with HR?

I can't help wondering if these guys are being playful but don't know you well enough yet for anything more insightful than the obvious surface variations. If this truly bothers you then by all means it should stop. However, please first be certain that it even should bother you.

Common to every job I've held (warehouses, forklifts, high-security offices, HIPAA-regulated environments, large corporations, tiny mom & pop cottages) is the tendency to tease coworkers, just a little fun--with a slight but seriously sincere undertone. There's more to it than jokes; this immaturity carries a bonding element that's very carnal indeed.

We live a third of our lives with these people at work; shouldn't we all get along and share some fun moments now and then? You wrecked your car this morning? We're all genuinely relieved you're unhurt, but we'll henceforth mock your driving abilities, even if you've never had a wreck before, and even if it wasn't your fault today.

Lacking details my perspective is entirely conjecture, but I'm more inclined to lean toward friendly indeed. This all could be merely evidence of endearment and of acceptance into the fold. I'd likely joke with you in the same way, and I guarantee it wouldn't carry malicious intent. I'd also be disappointed--if not slightly hurt--if you never reciprocated.

While I don't expect cultural differences to be a huge factor, maybe they are. While a thumbs up in America means 'great,' it's a nonverbal expletive in Iran. My friend dated a Russian emigrant who was insulted that my dog of ten years was named 'Sasha.' She piously stated that "we never give human names to animals, it's offensive." Well, I tried to be understanding, but her tone suggested that I was wrong, despite just now learning of this cultural taboo that's only in effect 9,000 miles away.

She'd moved to America and so must accept that she'll meet dogs named Hank and Sally--even if she's not required to like it. With these variances in mind, maybe office joking in Britain is unheard of. However what I've experienced feels more instinctual than cultural.

When we tease it's generally an attempt at deepening a friendship more than a divisive desire to belittle someone.

Of course your assailants' verbal tone could strongly contradict everything I've said; I may be completely wrong but genuinely hope I'm right, and I also hope you come to enjoy the teasing. Because many Americans can be incredibly stubborn, so while you absolutely could involve HR, it wouldn't likely end to your satisfaction.

Please let us know how it goes.

-1

You have a right to a workplace where you are treated with the respect that's due to each of us and where you are free from harassment.

If you feel that your right has been infringed, raise the issue either with your boss or HR, depending on who the culprits are.

If you feel that you can talk to the culprits about what they have done and about the changes in behavior you want without you getting unduly upset and having an urge to remove body parts from somebody, then you should give talking to the culprits a try. Otherwise, it's either your boss or HR.

Another thing: I don't personally think that the British spelling of words is incorrect, even in an American context - as long as you don't use "colour" in one paragraph and "color" in another paragraph of the same communication i.e. you are consistent. Check with your boss to make sure that you are all on the same page, though.

  • 13
    HR, legal options, Civil Rights... Why make it so difficult? Most of the human issues can and will be solved simply by talking to the colleagues. If you are too shy, drop an email or a text message. Will make everyone's involved life easier. – Gediminas May 27 '15 at 8:47
  • @Gediminas: "why make it so difficult?" -- probably because before it was edited, that's what the question was specifically asking about. – Steve Jessop May 27 '15 at 9:04
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    @SteveJessop is right: I answered the question, before the OP went back and edited it. Nothing wrong with the OP going back and editing, of course. Time for me to hide the skeleton :) – Vietnhi Phuvan May 27 '15 at 10:08
  • @VietnhiPhuvan: in case it affects what you do, it wasn't the OP who changed the question. – Steve Jessop May 27 '15 at 11:18
-5

I find it quite funny. They are mocking you for your British accent, whereas it is the other way around: it is they who are having a funny accent, and it is them who are making spelling mistakes.

Next time someone tries to mock or correct you, you can simply laugh. You can also correct them, if you find it appropriate.

​​​

  • It is noteworthy how this answer got 6 downvotes, even though it is essentially based on the same idea as Patricia's answer, which got 16 upvotes. – O. R. Mapper May 28 '15 at 7:58
  • @O.R.Mapper I guess by americans ;) – BЈовић May 28 '15 at 10:58
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    @O.R.Mapper The difference is that Patricia's answer doesn't claim that Americans "have a funny accent" or that American spelling is a "mistake". Her answer also includes practical advice, such as using US spelling when writing documents for a US business. – David Richerby May 28 '15 at 11:56

protected by enderland May 27 '15 at 13:23

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