Tuesday, March 03, 2009

telling the difference between American and British mothers

Children of North American mothers are over-represented at Grover's (BrE) creche/(AmE) daycare. My theory on this is that the foreigners on campus are more likely to require their child care services, since they're less likely to have relatives living locally to help out and because it's likely that their co-parents will also be academics (since, as newcomers to the country, more of our social life--in the absence of family, school friends, etc--is probably to be found at work). The alternative is to believe it's because we're more pushy than British parents in making sure that our children get to the top of the waiting list. I'm discounting that hypothesis due to evidence that my native-British counterparts are well-practiced in pushiness.

I've mentioned before that I can be fairly inattentive to accents. But I have a sure-fire way of telling which parents are British and which ones North American, which I'll share with you just in case you ever need to sort people by nationality at a playground. First, wait the 5 seconds or so it'll take before the parent is impressed by (or at least wants to give positive feedback about) something the child has done. Say, quacking like a duck or successfully getting from standing position to sitting position without crying or drawing blood. (These work in the 12-to-14-month-old set, at least.) Then listen:
  • The British parent will say Well done!
  • The American parent will say Good job!
I find myself saying both now, because I've become hyperaware that Good job sounds American. We're saying it a lot these days, as Grover took her first steps on Sunday. She seems to have well and truly caught up with the children her age who gestated properly. Hurrah!

37 comments:

Lindenwood said...

Oh so true! I am Australian, had my first child in the UK, then moved to the US when she was 7mo, and had two more children there.

I was in the US for nearly 4 years, so I tend to say "Good job!" more than "Well done!" Of course, Australians fall into the "Well done!" camp, so I sound decidedly odd using an American phrase with my broad Australian accent.

I mostly say it without thinking, but today I helped out in my daughter's class for the first time, and I found myself wondering what her classmates were thinking of the weird lady who kept saying "Good job!"

Owen said...

I think one of the reasons saying "Good job!" in these situations sounds so American is that in Britain, "good job" is used to mean something else. In particular, "good job" (BrE) is roughly synonymous with "good thing" (AmE), as in "Good job/thing it's sunny today; I forgot my umbrella."

MikeH said...

Grover took her first steps on Sunday? Well done! ;)

Actually, I started using "Well done" soon after arriving, and for the same reason Owen cites.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Yes, I was - not thrown, exactly, but startled - on my first visit to the USA, when I watched the Adult National Figure Skating Championships to hear my friends all congratulating one another by saying "Great job!" when I was saying "Oh, well done, that was fantastic!"

Joel A. Shaver said...

And 'well done' always makes me think of steak...

dveej said...

Re: Owen's posting above about "good job [Br]" being equivalent to "it's a good thing that...", a Canadian I knew once gave me pause by commenting on a particularly rainy day, "it's a good job I remembered to shut the door". This seemed an odd usage of "good job' to me (American), since it has a slight emotional undertone of [danger narrowly averted], which is missing from my native usage of "good job" as a compliment. Maybe the emotional content of the Can usage of "good job" (at least in this instance) is similar to the UK usage?

Lindenwood said...

If you watch the US version and the UK version of the children's show "Maisy", you'll notice the "Well done"/"Good job" translation. After being so used to a plummy British "Well DONE, Maisy!", it was a bit of a shock to suddenly hear "Good JAHB, Maisy!" in broadest American!

Anonymous said...

In a similar vein, in sporting contexts, my teammates (Brits), upon one of us making a mistake such as fluffing a serve, will say in commiseration, "Oh, bad luck." Whereas my (American) first reaction is to say "Too bad." I'm pretty sure I've heard Brits say "bad luck" to children, too, in contexts ranging from falling down to not doing as well on their SATs as expected.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking about this very same thing at the weekend. An American friend on Facebook regularly posts videos of her young son and as he took his first steps with a push-along toy, she said, "Good job!" I've heard her say it in other clips too. I remember thinking it sounded very American but without really knowing why, and later came to the conclusion that my natural instinct (as a Brit) would be to say, "Well done."

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

The first anonymous (You might sign with some kind of handle!) said about saying "Oh, bad luck!" to someone who has had a minor disaster, like a child falling down or someone missing a catch in cricket or whatever. I can see how, if you weren't familiar with this usage, it would look as though you were wishing them bad luck, as the converse, "Good luck!" is almost invariably a wish.

conuly said...

Just to stir the pot a little, here's Alfie Kohn's take on saying "good job" to kids:

http://www.alfiekohn.org/parenting/gj.htm

Walk Talk Tours said...

A few years ago, I worked at a Summer Camp in Maine and discovered the natives loved to say 'good job'. A 'good job' accompanied by a high-five conveys so much more than a 'well done' and a pat on the back.

biochemist said...

I wonder if the American moms are at least three times as effusive as the British mums while expressing their pride? About 30 years ago I tried to follow the 'Toilet Training in Less than a Day' regimen in the USA, but realised that I (Brit) didn't have the stamina for the highly demonstrative praise that I should have been expressing at every use of the potty. She did learn to use it eventually...

ros said...

I do not have small children so I may be wrong in this, but I wouldn't have used the word creche for the regular childcare facility you are describing. I'd call that a nursery. A creche would be something more informal, often set up to run during a specific event. Which, oddly, is what my American friends called the nursery.

Anonymous said...

Mrs Redboots, (first anon here) I did figure out from their tone that "bad luck" was short for "that's bad luck" or "you've had bad luck", but with my response, "too bad", I started wondering whether they thought I was accusing them of playing badly.
On the praise side, I don't think I say "good job" very often--is it relatively new? I think I said things like "there you go," "way to go," and "atta girl/boy" to my children when they were smaller. And I'm not that old.

lynneguist said...

@ros: this has come up before, but the name of our childcare facility is the University Creche. 'Nursery' there only refers to the part for the oldest [preschool] children.

Robbie said...

Let me add my question to Anonymous' above: is "good job" (as praise for children) new? I grew up in the US in the 1960s-70s and never heard it.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Another BrE expression I used today without thinking about it, and then stopped to wonder whether it was used in the USA is "Good for you!", meaning, basically, "Well done you", or "Good for him/her!" if someone is telling you about someone's having done something that needs applause.

Expat mum said...

Sitting in the park the other day (in the US) I was thinking about this very difference, as another British mother's child fell over. He was a little shaken but not too bad, which is just as well as she didn't make a move to help him, merely saying "You're fine, you're fine. Come on get up." I was the only mom who didn't feel like making a call to Family Services, however, he really was fine and just toddled off to play again. (The American mom, in my experience, would have been much more solicitous, probably wiping the hand and applying multiple kisses.) No wonder we have a stiff upper lip.

lynneguist said...

I think we need to be a little careful here with those kinds of generalizations. My American family is very much of the 'you're fine' variety. (In fact, the last and worst time my heart was broken, my mother's response was "Stiff upper lip!") Better Half's British family (well, at least he and his mother) are very much of the "Oh, poor baby! Let me give you a cuddle!" school--though BH is learning better through my excellent tuition. :P

There's a lot of scope here for individual, class and regional differences. (Not to mention generational, but it tends to be one generation having babies at a time!)

Emily said...

To those who are asking how new the expression "good job" is, I'm 30 and I definitely heard "good job" growing up. "There you go" and "atta girl/boy" sound dated to my ears. "Way to go" I heard a bit more.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I think the "stiff upper lip" mothers, of whatever nationality, probably know that if you pretend not to have seen a child fall over, chances are it won't make a fuss....

Leslie said...

It is so true. And, as an American mother, I automatically say "good job" but really think "well done" is a more accurate thing to say as the child isn't doing a job in most cases.

Strawberryyog said...

Ah yes, attagirl! (I never get to say attaboy due to the gender-consistency of my kids.) That's an interesting one - when I say it, as I like occasionally to do, I think I am being, er, self-consciously jokey/anachronistic as it sounds old to me. Maybe even, er, self-consciously jokey/pretend-American/anachronistic in fact - it has that slight feeling to me too, I think. Not recent-American like "can I get" (gah!) but older-American, say like calling someone "buddy". It feels perhaps like an affectionate-Americanism-usage with maybe a hint of the 50s or WWII about it, or something. How odd (and fun) that that one word has triggered such a chain of feelings for me to try and trace back!

Picky said...

Does nobody say "Clever girl!" or "Clever boy!" which is what I think I would have said to my children when they were very young? "Well done!" came when they were older, I think.

lynneguist said...

I think my mother-in-law says 'clever girl', but Better Half never does and I don't recall hearing it at any baby gatherings from other parents. So possibly a generational difference?

Lindenwood said...

Interesting about "Clever girl!"

An Australian friend in the US, whose children were in the school system (mine weren't at that point, as they were too young) mentioned that she thought Americans and Australians (don't know where the UK would fit in with this following example) used "clever" and "smart" in different ways.

In Australia, it would be a normal, and complimentary, thing to say to a child who has done something well, "Aren't you clever?" My friend had found that her American acquaintances would use "smart" instead of "clever" in that context. Conversely, while Australians will often use "smart" in a somewhat less complimentary sense (as in, if a child is being cheeky to the point of rudeness, you might say "Don't get smart with me!), she had found that "clever" was more likely to be used in this context by her American acquaintances. (Did that make sense? The implication being that, if Australian, it is much better to be clever than smart, but the opposite in the USA!)

lynneguist said...

We've already covered the smart/clever thing back here.

Picky said...

... including "Clever boy!" ... to a dog ...

Strawberryyog said...

Just a quick follow-up on attagirl/attaboy. I tried this on a colleague who's even older than me and she had, instantly, the same reaction - she thinks of it as 50s-or-earlier, US-flavo[u]red, etc. OK it's not statistically significant just yet but it is a stunning 100% agreement rate! Now it would be nice to know if there's any agreement outside the academic common rooms of EC1 ... :)

Picky said...

Well, from an even older witness:

"Attaboy!" hardly exists for me, except as the expression which "Attagirl" is somehow referring to. Because "Attagirl!", having that 50s flavour, also conjures up a brave lass doing something un-lass-like ... and muttering "Attagirl!" to herself as she does it.

Perhaps the heroine of a Michael Innes detective novel, trapped in the villain's cellar, brushing the spiders' webs away from her pretty face, levering at the windowbars with a chairleg, and saying "Attagirl!" to herself as she pluckily calms her feminine nerves.

PeteM said...

I was attending an american football game in Arizona and was irritated to learn that grilling in the parking lot ("tailgating", we Americans call it) was banned at this particular facility.

On the way into the game we passed a few Mexican guys (not Mexican-American, as will soon become apparent) recklessly grilling their sticks behind their truck. Wanting to applaud their disregard for an unjust law (though they were probably simply unaware of it), I gave them a thumbs up and a hearty "well done!", which I now realize I had started using, even though I'm American, probably because I'm an anglophile and watch a lot of British TV shows.

The griller looked at me, confused, and turned to his friend and asked what I correctly assumed to be "What did he say?" My Cuban-American friend told me the reply was "He said you should cook you're steak all the way through."

Aviatrix said...

LOVE the steak story!

I think I'm an outlier to both camps, preferring "Way to go!" and "Good one!" to either "Good job" or "Well done," but I accept them both as reasonable things to say.

I think Canadians are usually in the middle this way, between our British origins and American neighbours. To me a nursery is a place you go to buy landscaping plants, but I will say 'tree nursery' or the like if necessary to avoid confusion with the neonatal department at a hospital or the kids' room in a British novel. I don't think it would occur to me that a daycare was a nursery. Although it might be a 'nursery school.'

Ian said...

I'm a Brit and I remember when I was a small child in the 50's, my mum would say when I was potty training, that doing a pooh was a "big job" or a "good job". I've also heard Billy Connelly talk about a "wee jobbie" or a "big jobbie" - meaning the same thing.

Perhaps that's why we Brits are loath to say "Good Job"!

Vanessa said...

I definitely think that "Well done" sounds more British. In fact, as I read the post and the comments, I found myself imagining the phrase "well done" with a British accent. (I also do this with the menu at Outback Steak House, only that I read in imaginary Australian).

As for the stiff-upper-lip versus overly fussy attitudes towards children's boo-boos, I wonder if that has more to do with someone's experience level. Most parents tend to be overly cautious with the first child and tend to relax as they gain more parental experience. I know in my (American) family, if you fell down, you got laughed at--which is how I react to people falling down today (especially at myself). Though, I'm not sure who gets more offended when I laugh, the stiff-upper-lippers or the overly-fussed-overers.

conuly said...

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/30/opinion/30iht-edcohen.html?_r=1&em

John Cowan said...

My response to a toddler falling down is neither of the above, but "Boom!" with great enthusiasm, as if the child had fallen down as part of a game. Most of the time the kid laughs rather than crying.