The American imperative (when they tell you what to do)
Americans don’t mumble.
Some people might say that American are loud.
I would never say that.
But their default volume is high, no doubt.
So even when we’re not quite sure what they’re thinking or feeling, we can be sure what they’re saying. And a lot of the time, they’re telling us to do things.
But is it an order? Is it advice? Or is it something else?
Let’s take a look at some examples, and I’ll use my British homeland to compare:
Have a great / blessed day
This is how grocery store cashiers say goodbye, and they mean well, but that’s a lot of pressure, especially when they say it at 10pm (there’s something of a time warp in these places, when they can say “have a great night” at 1PM). I wish they’d stuck with “Have a nice day”, which is definitely something within reach, but sadly in 2017 that’s not enthusiastic enough.
Now, these are phrases that not only imply enthusiasm on the speaker but also demand an equally enthusiastic response.
I’m not blessing people, I can’t reach that far. Let’s all just try and make it through one day at a time with minimal scarring.
The British like a low-key good-bye, so “Cheers” will do. In case this sounds too celebratory, they will drain the energy from it by fumbling it, as in, “Okay then, cheers, all right, nice one, cheers,” and by the time you realize they’re actually leaving, they’ve gone.
So I will not tell people to have a great or blessed day, but if they wish me one, I’ll say “thanks!” as if they have given me a surprise candy bar, and so far that’s working out just fine
Enjoy your meal!
In British restaurants, servers will use the same expression, but it doesn’t carry the same urgency. In Britain, “Enjoy your meal” means, “You asked for the carbonara, I brought it, it’s probably okay, and at least you don’t have to wash the dishes, but let’s not mess about — I don’t actually give a toss whether you enjoy this or not.”
The way American servers use this phrase strongly suggests there’s nothing he or she would like more than to sit down beside you and take a bite, split the check and maybe go for ice-cream with you after.
Of course, they don’t intend to do any of those things. But Americans collectively indulge in a fantasy that eating is somehow a challenge. Which is why a server will first return with the question “How’s that tasting?” in a tone most other cultures reserve for toddlers, and then “Still working on it?”
Hey, having spent two summers waiting tables in the US, I know the importance of cajoling adults into doing the thing they drove there to do in the first place.
So while I don’t appreciate being encouraged to something I ordered, I have respect for anyone who can use theses phrase convincingly and will tip accordingly.
This was how the DMV worker said goodbye to me after I’d passed my driving test, which poured cold water over my “I’ve passed!” buzz.
I’ve been reassured since then that she meant “Goodbye” and not “You’ll be dead within a week”.
The British equivalent is “Take care,” which sounds the same, right?
“Take care” is said so lightly, so blithely, that we don’t have to concern ourselves with a deeper meaning.
No so in the American south.
My mother-in-law uses it regularly, and when she says “be careful” to my wife, it sounds like “see you soon, I love you.” When she says it to me, I’m pretty sure she’s saying, “Watch it, mister.”
So Americans aren’t shy about telling us what to do.
Are they expert on what’s best for us? Should we follow their commands uncritically?
Probably not. But we can take their imperatives as positive energy, as emphatic communication and at least an attempt to make a connection with us.
Except for my last example:
Knock yourself out
If someone tells you this:
1) They think you’re about to do something stupid.
Example — I’m thinking about getting a Fitbit.
2) You’ve asked for a favor / permission and they’re completely disinterested.
Child: We’re gonna have a dance competition and you have to be the judge!
Parent: Judge it yourself, I just sat down.
Child: Can we have it in the back yard?
Parent: Knock yourself out.
3) You have been insufficiently grateful for something they’ve done, and now they’re dropping all sense of responsibility.
Peter: Where we eating tonight?
Jane: (said sweetly) That new Somali place.
Peter: It doesn’t look so great from the outside.
Jane: (said with utter disdain) You want to book the restaurant? Knock yourself out.
So in the interests of cultural assimilation, I really want to wish y’all a blessed day.
Until next time, be careful.
And hey, if you think you can improve your English fluency just by sitting back with some snacks and watching Game of Thrones, knock yourself out.
Tried Working English?