A NOT-SO-COMMON LANGUAGE

After all the uproar about Coca-cola employing a commercial in which immigrants sang “America the Beautiful” in their native languages instead of English (as the grandson of immigrants, I found it touching, beautiful, and far more patriotic than the outcry), it occurred to me that most people mistakenly believe that Americans share a common language.

I learned that lesson as a child when my family was vacationing in New England. We sat down at a lunch counter, and the friendly man asked me what I wanted to drink. I asked him what kind of pop he had, and he looked confused. I repeated my question, and he genuinely asked, “What’s pop?” Surprised at his ignorance, I replied, “You know, like Coke, Pepsi …” and he grinned and said, “Oh, you mean soda!”

Years later, I was working in my college auditorium when a friend from Red Sox country mentioned that he was off to visit the bubbler. He made a couple more visits, and my fellow stagehands and I were baffled. So when he mentioned his next visit, we followed him and saw him take a drink from the handy appliance in the nearby hall. “The water fountain!” we shouted. “What water fountain?” he asked. “This is a bubbler.” He also confused us when he asked for an elastic band, because we didn’t realize that’s how folks in Beantown identified what we God-fearing Midwesterners knew as a rubber band.

There are all sorts of little regional differences like that. One city’s grinder is another city’s hoagie is another city’s submarine, and you’ll get a puzzled look if you try to use the same name.

Yes, there’s a point here. You can never assume that your audience speaks the exact same version of English that’s familiar to you. If they think of the source for cool liquid refreshment as a bubbler, and you try to convince them to buy a water fountain, neither of you is going to be happy with the results. As with so many other things, the key is listening and learning before you try to sell.

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