Adapt or perish

Are you trying to tell me something here?
Are you trying to tell me something here?

On my first full day in Augusta (December 11, 2013, if you’re keeping track at home), I had a solid list of appointments to view apartments for rent.

I had a rental car, but the coworker I was temporarily staying with offered to drive me around to a few of the meetings while he was running errands.

We pulled up outside one place, on Summer Street, and Joe let me out on the sidewalk before he parked so that I could safely traverse a snow bank or particularly nasty patch of ice.

When he got out of the car, he asked me: “The thing we just pulled up on; how would you spell that? Kerb or curb?”

I was stopped momentarily in my tracks. I knew one was the American English version, and the other conformed to the Queen’s dictionary … but which was which?

If you’ve been reading this blog for long enough, you probably know where this is going. Obviously I struck out and, overconfidently assuming I was guessing the American English version correctly, picked “kerb.” I mean, it’s not like I was hired to write and edit for a newspaper in American English or anything, right?

Shit.

The night before, after arriving in Augusta on the bus and stopping by the office to fill out the required employment paperwork, my soon-to-be-manager presented me with three books that were implied required reading: the AP Style Guide, her self-published handbook to navigating common language speed bumps from the perspective of a newspaper editor, and a tome called British or American English?

I couldn’t quite decide whether the latter was given to me in jest or out of serious concern for my ability to adapt to the prevalence of Zs and frequent absence of the letter U.

But either way, I knew it was in my best interests to force my brain into writing like the locals do. My early blog entries and Facebook posts likely contradicted my determination to write in American English, but I’ll put all of that down to using a laptop and phone that were set to the Queen’s English by default.

After a couple of months, my phone was autocorrecting Ss to Zs without me having to swear and re-type words, and I’d taken the plunge and changed my Word defaults to the local dictum.

In those early days, I received an unsurprisingly steady amount of shit from my readers and friends, especially former coworkers who had an eagle eye for that sort of thing.

But it wasn’t just the written word that had people back home raising a skeptical eyebrow.

During Skype or FaceTime sessions with loved ones Down Under, I’d drop slight American pronunciations or slightly different pieces of vocabulary without even noticing that I was using them. “The price of gas” (instead of petrol), for instance, or pronouncing the red salad ingredient as “tomayto” instead of “tomahto.” I’m pretty sure my sister still rolls her eyes every time I pronounce the third day of the week as “Toosday” rather than “Choosday,” as I did for the first 28 years of my life.

For the entirety of my time here, though, I’ve responded to the criticism or amazement with a shrug and the same line: “Adapt or perish.”

In essence, it’s about making it easier for people to understand me. One of the only concerns I aired with my future boss during my initial visit to Augusta was, “I’m worried that people won’t be able to understand what the hell I’m saying.” I have a complex about having to repeat myself, and that hasn’t gone away.

So even if I didn’t have to conform to an American English dictionary as part of my line of work, why wouldn’t I spell things the American way while communicating as an American permanent resident?

There have been times where I’ve submitted columns with slight turns of phrase that my editors have been baffled by, because I was using a piece of Australian slang that I didn’t even realize was slang. If that were happening in general conversation and outside the realm of edited writing, God knows how many times I’d have to awkwardly repeat myself. And I hate doing that.

The same sort of thing goes for the spoken word. A couple of weeks into being “the token Aussie” at The Maine House, I told Deanna with absolute certainty that “this is going to be the job that erases my accent.” When the bar is packed, the band is playing and it’s tough to make oneself heard over the din, customers not expecting to hear an accent have proven to not be able to understand some of my pronunciation.

In the early days, customers seated at the bar would often ask me where the accent was from. Four months later, people rarely if ever notice, and even then only when someone points it out to them. That’s because the word “beer” has a very distinct R sound coming out of my mouth. Glass rhymes with lass, not farce.

Once again, adapt and perish.

I’ve been rolling the concept of this post around in my head for a few weeks now, but the catalyst to sit down and actually write it came on Saturday night. I was idly browsing Facebook after work when I came across a post on the Australians in America group from someone asking how long it had taken other Aussie immigrants to adopt the local spelling rules.

While I wasn’t surprised to find more answers of “I will never adapt” than the opposite – the forum can be borderline jingoistic at moments – my predominant emotion was “Why?”

To paraphrase, the argument was made that spelling things the way we would have back home (“colour” instead of “color,” “recognise” instead of “recognize”) is in some way “sticking it to the man” or “staying true to where one is from.” I could probably write another 500 words on how ridiculous those notions are, not to mention ironic, given that I’m sure many would demand immigrants to Australia to conform to the Queen’s English, but it’d be a waste of keystrokes.

But overall, I just don’t get it. Even on the overseas vacations I’ve taken in my life – Indonesia, the U.S., countries in Europe – I’ve always wanted to avoid standing out like a sore thumb. Blending in is safer and more comfortable, y’know?

So if calling petrol “gas” or spelling cheque “check” makes things easier for the people you’re communicating with, why not?

In my books, you’re better off adapting than perishing.

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