Tuesday, 21 December 2010

What Are You Like?

My first week in Scotland, a woman in a shop asked me where I was from. When I said California, she gestured at the rain spattered windows. "I'll bet you're sorry you traded it for this," she said.

I was new in the U.K. and unfamiliar with the unwritten rule that you have to hate rain, so I shook my head. "Actually, I grew up in a desert where it hardly ever rained. I wouldn't trade this weather for all the sunshine in the world."

The woman tilted her head and stared at me. The look on her face said You're kidding me, aren't you? When she realized I was dead serious, she narrowed her eyes. "Well now. What are you like?" she said. I had no idea what she meant by this so I had no answer for her.

I heard the expression again a few months later when I told a neighbor I used vinegar to clean shower stalls and composted all my cardboard. She thought it was odd to use a foodstuff as a cleaning product and she questioned the wisdom of using cardboard as mulch. By this time, I was beginning to see that What are you like? wasn't entirely complimentary.

The third time I heard this was after I'd told an acquaintance we didn't wear our shoes inside our house. "What does that mean?" I asked her immediately. "You already know what I'm like!"

"It's just an expression," she said, not quite meeting my eyes. "It doesn't really mean anything."

For some reason, it took me years to look this up, but when I did, I got a shock. Used when someone has said or done something silly, I read on the Cambridge Dictionaries Online site. This rhetorical question is asked of someone who has done something stupid or outrageous, offered another reference.

Silly? Stupid? Outrageous? Just reading these definitions made my eyes flash and my jaw clench. Every time somebody asks me this, I feel my smile go all steely and I have to take long, deep breaths.

And ever since learning what this idiom means, I've heard it dozens of times. I've found that it can be used to refer to genuine idiocy, personal idiosyncrasies, small, perfectly understandable linguistic misunderstandings, or even variations in pronunciation.

For example, I heard this when I asked for ground chicken instead of minced at the butcher's, when someone told me he worked at a bookmaker's and I thought this meant he sold books, when I had a senior Japanese moment at the post office and tried to buy a 30-pence stamp with three 2-pence pieces, which suddenly looked a lot like ten-yen coins. I heard this when I accidentally forgot where I was and called our car's bonnet a hood, or referred to the boot as the trunk. I've even had people ask me what I'm like when I've pronounced oregano with the stress on the second syllable, which is the only way I will ever pronounce it because I am an American. And although I may not wave a flag and brag to all and sundry that I come from the Greatest Country in the World, as Popeye said, I yam what I yam.

Recently we had an American student stay at our house and the What are you like? idiom came up. I confided how long it had taken me to find out the meaning, and I whined about how tired I was of hearing it.

The girl's jaw dropped. "Is that what it means?" she whispered. I nodded and she blanched. "Omigod, people say that to me all the time -- I had no idea!"

What are we like?

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31 comments:

Jacqui said...

Next time, I would just say, "A ray of sunshine" and let them figure it out.

e said...

You might just say, "marching to my own drummer, thanks!"

Angela Ackerman said...

Ha, I like Jaqui's comment!

Boy I would be in big trouble if I transplanted myself there. I can just see how well my flashlight instead of torch, cookies instead of buscuits and chips instead of crisps would go over. LOL

angryparsnip said...

How funny that they all think that of just common "mistakes" or different word usage. Are Scottish people all so uptight ?
My pronunciation of certain words would not doubt drive them crazy and have them thinking the worst.
so for what ever you say or don't say... to me it is what make you fabulous.

Right on sister !
cheers, parsnip

Vijaya said...

Now I'm well prepared. I'll say, "Just me, moi, myself. And you?" Aw, Mary, don't be mad, don't clench those teeth. You're a breath of fresh air. We use vinegar as a cleaning agent as well, compost, and recycle. Why today, I made soap with my kiddos! We all have the cleanest hands in the county.

Robert the Skeptic said...

I love it, I'm going to adopt it and start using it.

Mr London Street said...

As confusing semi-rhetorical questions go, I've always thought "do you know what I mean?" is pretty irritating, followed only by the unbelievably empty "half-eight, is that the time?"

Anne M Leone said...

Yes, yes, yes. For all the stereotypes of politeness, they can be pretty rude sometimes, huh?

Another British expression I hate is the condescending "bless." Not used in the way Americans use it, as in bless you, but said very sarcastically, like you're a weird, dumb, or pathetic person.

Okay, now I'm grinding MY teeth! =)

emilydreams said...

It's so funny getting the outside perspective on my own culture! It never occurred to me that WAYL was a negative thing to say. From my POV it's a ... jokey remark, I suppose? Said with a smile, not a frown. But maybe usage varies, or I'm just uberpolite. :P Either way I'm sorry you & other non-Brits have experienced it so negatively, that is truly rubbish.

Oh and I use vinegar for cleaning too - mixed with water in a spray bottle for ease of use. It smells so much better than all the artificial chemical cleaners ...

To Anne M Leone, another commenter: I'm British and *I* hate "bless" being used that way, too - SO patronising, isn't it! My teeth grind down to stubs when I hear it ...

Kim Ayres said...

"What are you like?" - essentially a short version of, "You're clearly not like me or people I know, so what are you like?" :)

tanita davis said...

Oh, dear.
We haven't yet heard that one, but we might have had it said -- you know, one of those murmured comments that you don't quite catch...?

::sigh::

I'm becoming quite stroppy in my dotage here (three years here = dotage) so I really hope no one says that to me, because I doubt my reply will be anything about sunshine, unless it's about er, placement, as it were...

Mary Witzl said...

Jacqui -- You can bet that I'll be using that the very next time I hear this. I can hardly wait!

e -- That's a foregone conclusion, but I'll put that in my handy bag of stock come-backs too.

Angela -- Me too. I plan to start doing outre things right away just so someone will call me on them and I can whip that out. Another one I've used is: "What a boring world it would be if we were all alike," said with a tight little smile.

I've learned not to call biscuits 'cookies' when I'm talking to people I don't know. But oREgano will never be oreGAno.

AP -- By no means are all Scottish people like this, but after 10+ years in the U.K., I've met a fair number who are. The great thing is that there are PLENTY of eccentrics too, and most of them are out of the closet. They're my best pals and I love them.

I've had people ask me to pronounce 'garage', 'oregano', and 'Hong Kong' over and over, they find my versions so quaint. I tell myself I'm a cultural ambassador and cannot afford to lose my temper. But I'm glad I have a blog!

Vijaya -- YAY -- another green cleaner! And you make your own soap? I did it once in the States, but when I tried to find lye here and told them why I wanted it, I got asked what I was like. Nobody will believe me when I tell them that soap making calls for a caustic agent AND some kind of fat. (I want your recipe!)

Robert -- You must promise to use it for good alone! Can I send you some of the guys who use it here and have you use it on them when they visit the States?

Mr London Street -- Questions like that have their own illocutionary force, like a parent saying to an adult kid "John, you're 20 years old," but meaning "Get a job, you bum." So "Do you know what I mean?" is another way of saying "I've noticed you're not looking at me and when you are, your body language and facial expressions suggest that you think I'm nuts. So are you actually taking this in?" I hear it ALL the time and I'll bet you do too...?

Anne -- Whoa, I get that ALL the time too: "Aww, bless"!! I always worried that it was my own paranoia that made me interpret it as "Wow, you're really weird!" Now I'm thinking I was on to something.

I've always liked what Paul Theroux said about American eccentrics in Britain: that in a country where some people actually knit warmers for soft-boiled eggs, they're in good company. I love meeting eccentric people here. I embrace them as sisters and brothers.

Emily -- I'm a little prickly, but I can tell when this is being used in a kind way and when (grrr!) it isn't. I know you're not one of the people who would use it in a mean way. And I know the people who do this really are a small minority -- it's just they're a small IRRITATING minority, like Americans who ask foreign residents which they they like best, their own country or the U.S., then get bent out of shape when people choose their motherland. (I'll make sure to roast them next.)

Kim -- I've just thought of another good retort: "Stick around and you'll find out!" I wouldn't trust myself to tell others what I'm like, but I'm sure I could show them.

Tanita -- You haven't heard this one yet? Promise me that when you do, you'll tell me!

I've just had an irritating brush with "What are you like?" and that is probably why I'm feeling so disgruntled. Sometimes I tell people I came to live in the U.K. because British quirkiness appealed. Maybe I should make myself an 'Embrace eccentricity!' T-shirt. Or grow a thicker skin...

Mr London Street said...

In fairness, one of my pet hates is being called "British" by Americans, but that's probably just me.

Anne M Leone said...

Just wanted to say, thanks, emilydreams! It's so good to know I'm not the only one grinding my teeth! =)

Mary Witzl said...

Mr London Street -- Believe me, 'British' beats 'Yank' with a stick, whether you're ethnically African, Irish, Asian, or whatever. I've been called 'Yank' roughly a dozen times, directly or indirectly, in as many years in the U.K. and I believe I've lost enamel from my teeth over it.

And as someone who has messed up and referred to Welsh, Irish, and Scottish people as English, I'll probably stick with 'British' -- especially since I now know the difference between Australian and British accents.

Anne -- Emily, you, and I aren't any nationality -- we're beyond that! We're Blue Boarders, a whole different country of our own.

Mr London Street said...

Ah, but that's to confuse ethnicity and nationality. "Yank" is objectionable as a shortening of American, but "British" is annoying because it's an oversimplification of the English, Scottish, Welsh etc. Still, I can see we all sound the same to you. There's nothing quite like the chill, after all, when you accidentally accuse someone from New Zealand of being Australian.

angryparsnip said...

Oh I know that all are not uptight but I according to a best friend... her family was and frugal too !
I just assumed more eccentrics...

For me the words my friends crack -up over are otTOEman ottoman and orAgone Oregon... but that not so cultural more wrapping my vowels around them.

Your blog shall help you...

cheers, parsnip

Charles Gramlich said...

I think I would rather enjoy having that comment made about me. Seeing as I believe the vast majority of human beings are rather vain and silly, to be called this by such folks would be a high compliment indeed.

Vijaya said...

To clarify Mary, I'm recycling soap this time (from bits of old soap saved ... and add oils and fragrant leaves and other bits to make it pretty). Haven't made soap from scratch in ages ...

Marcia said...

So how do they say oregano in the UK???

Anne Spollen said...

I think I would just tour Scotland and maybe not speak. They would surely hear my NYC accent.

I use baking soda and vinegar all over the house, and we reuse things before we recycle them. Today I took the old wooden kitchen drainboard, sawed off the leg pieces and hung herbs on it to dry.

So I guess that's "what I'm like" --interesting, the cultural perspectives.

Eryl said...

I'm forever being asked what I'm like, even by my own husband. Though, in fairness he does say it (half) jokingly. I think it's an update of the old: 'you're incorrigible you are!' that needed to be replaced because the kind of people who say it don't know what incorrigible means. I always suspect that what people really mean when they say it is: I don't know how to respond to you and am feeling uncomfortable. To which I say: 'bless.'

Mary Witzl said...

Mr London Street -- British people all sound entirely different depending on where they're from, but I've learned to take the easiest, less potentially offensive route by calling everybody 'British', which is also my (English) husband's preference. I've met English people who are ethnically Irish or Welsh or Scottish, and 'British' seems the safest term all around. Here in Scotland, I just call people with Scottish accents Scots and hope for the best.

AP -- My husband is driven wild by my pronunciation of 'Hong Kong'. This is a man who pronounces 'Yosemite' as three syllables and consistently refers to the ground as the floor. (Hi honey!) I keep telling him he ought to have a blog himself...

Charles -- That's what I always tell my kids -- that boring people who tell them they're eccentric are actually flattering them. I ought to take my own advice, shouldn't I?

Vijaya -- That sounds like a great way to use up all the little scraps of soap that we end up with. Maybe I'll try that!

Marcia -- O-re-GAH-no. If I had to pronounce 'oregano' that way, I'd laugh myself silly every time.

Anne -- I've got lemon balm hanging in my window! I need more people like Vijaya and you around here. The person who thought my use of vinegar as a cleaning fluid was strange was also shocked and stunned that I didn't like the idea of aerosol hairspray. Or any hairspray, come to think of it.

Eryl -- A lot of people who ask me what I'm like are just joking, like your husband -- of course I'm fine with them. As for the others, I think your explanation is spot on. I suspect that a lot of them would have trouble with 'incorrigible', 'eccentric', or 'idiosyncratic'. 'Weird' and 'daft' -- they'd definitely know those.

Falak said...

I think I'm going to use that to perplex my friends..... Really informative, this post. :)

Robin said...

You know, that's not a very nice expression. I don't like it at all. I feel my own eyes flashing and jaw clenching.

I vote you take them literally, and launch into a full description of what you're like. Memorize it so you can give it to each rude person. Start it with, "What an interesting question! Well, I grew up in California, and I was a very good student in Elementary School. I was unfailingly kind to others, and perhaps a tad timid. As I got older, into my middle school years...." Include your pregnancies - every gory detail- and how they affected your growth as a person.

I bet they'll stop saying that awful comment.

Mary Witzl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carole said...

Great post. I get mocked quite a bit here in the states as we have moved around a bit and each area has its own way of saying things.

Now that I live in St. Louis I cannot say pop, I have to say soda. In Montana you cannot say truck referring to a pick-up, or else you are laughed at. Trucks refers to 18 wheelers only in MT. And you can't say do you like my outfit? Outfit doesn't refer to clothing in MT. it refers to vehicles.

And so it goes.

Mary Witzl said...

Falak -- Yes! You'll be teaching your friends an interesting British idiom (though I'm told that this is used more in Southwestern Scotland and Ireland). That way they won't be scratching their heads if they ever come to the U.K. and hear this used themselves.

Robin -- What a great suggestion! I'm naturally garrulous anyway, but generally manage to keep it under control. But why bother if somebody actually ASKS me about myself? I've been itching to tell somebody my birth stories; my kids are getting sick of them. And what a perfect chance to talk about my stamp collection, how much I love gardening in my pajamas, and the cute things my cats do! I can hardly wait...

This is the wonderful thing about having a blog: you can use it to brainstorm. I'd never have thought of all these good things on my own!

Carole -- I had no idea that 'truck' and 'outfit' referred to different things in Montana -- I'm much obliged to you for pointing that out! I love finding out about regional differences in dialect in the U.S.; in Britain, there are also a lot of them. In Southern Scotland, where my ancestors came from, a 'jobby' is a polite way of describing number 2; in other parts of Scotland it can mean a small job. You can imagine how funny it is when people from different regions use that term in their own distinctive ways.

Miss Footloose said...

A little late, but I really enjoyed this post! I am sure the equivalent must have been thought about me or said to me in a dozen languages around the world. It's the price you pay for being a dumb foreigner ;)

Too bad you're no longer blissfully ignorant now that you actually understand it now when it is said to you.

As for vinegar, in Holland they even sell "cleaning vinegar" so it is not strange at all across the pond.

anna said...

I'm even later than Miss Footloose as I've only just discovered your lovely blog.

I find 'alright?' a tricky one in the uk too. It's obviously a kind of cheery greeting - 'Hiya! Alright?' and I never know quite what to respond. Do you just say 'Alright?' back? I feel I ought to say, 'Yes, I'm alright thank you. Are you alright?' Usually I just say 'Hello!' back just as cheerily, but I still feel I've left a question hanging...

Mary Witzl said...

Miss Footloose -- After having my use of vinegar queried, I made it a point to ask other people here if they used it. It turned out it was just one particular person who thought it was weird to clean windows with vinegar.

Anna -- That would stump me too! The last time I was back in the States, somebody said "Yo! Ow-zit Goan?" It took me far too long to answer, "Fine!" I've found that the best thing you can do is listen to what other people say, then modify it to suit your own sensibilities.