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I am from India and we speak English there as well, albeit not as culturally refined as I see in the US. In India, and perhaps in the UK, English is spoken in a straight and 'as it is' manner. For example, I found in the US, people would say "You might want to do this..." when they actually mean "You should/have to do this." For once, this kind of sentence with its tacit meaning in American culture has got me into a problem.

Can you give more examples here which would help me to understand more of these cultural connotations in American English?

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Per your request, I respectfully made some edits to your question, and called them out with strike-through and italics. This is not to show you up or embarrass you, but because you asked, and I am sincerely taking you at your word. I am thinking about a reply to your question now, and hope to have an answer presently. – Robusto Dec 6 '10 at 3:40
Thanks Robusto! – Pupil Dec 6 '10 at 3:42
up vote 10 down vote accepted

This is a really interesting question. It's hard to give you a really concrete example, but it sounds like you've had issues when someone was trying to be polite, so I will address that. As others have mentioned, people in America sometimes have trouble being told what to do. It sounds like whoever was speaking to you was trying to politely suggest that you should do something other than what you had been doing. Along the same lines, people often ask questions to lead the other person to make the right decision, rather than simply telling them what they are about to do is wrong.

Take for example two people driving in a car — we'll say Mike is the driver and Cindy is the passenger. Mike is about to miss a turn and Cindy knows it, but rather than simply tell him she might ask, "Is this our turn here?". Similarly, oftentimes someone will preface a fact with, "I think..." rather than just state the fact. For example, Bob is editing a sentence Violet has written. Violet wrote, "We did not receive the package until Friday." Bob knows that "receive" has been spelled incorrectly, but rather than just tell Violet she is wrong he will soften it by saying, "I think the i and e need to switched in the word receive."

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Liked how you explained with examples. That's what I asked for. Thanks! – Pupil Dec 7 '10 at 2:28
This has happened to me more than once: Someone says to me "Would you like to X?" And I honestly answer "No." Then only a few hours later I realize what they intended to say was "Please do X." And I probably would have said "Yes" in that case... – GEdgar Aug 10 '11 at 14:33

This sounds more like a cultural difference that is reflected in the usage of the language. You have probably noticed that the US culture is overall very individualistic. Americans typically do not like to be told what to do, and they also tend to respect the other person's right to different views or opinions. That is one reason why instead of "You should do this," an American is more likely to say "You might want to do this" or "Here's what I would do, if I were you".

Another reason is that Americans generally tend to be very polite. I was born in the former USSR and I came to the US as a teenager, and I can see noticeable differences between the two cultures. In fact, many people who have come to the US from the USSR as adults tend to sound rude when they speak English, even if they do not mean to offend anyone. Even if they know the language well, they often miss the various nuances that are natural to a native speaker of American English, such as saying "please" all the time, or avoiding direct imperatives by saying "would you..." or "could you..." instead of "Give me that!", or even smiling for no obvious reason.

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I do not miss the various nuances but I prefer to tell and to be told "I do not know" when asked "How to go to...?" than to send (be sent) in the wrong direction because it is considered impolite to tell directly "I do not know" – Gennady Vanin Геннадий Ванин Mar 6 '11 at 15:05
That's different. The question and my answer was about the case when you do know, or at least you believe that you know. – Dima Mar 6 '11 at 15:13
The politeness of Americans depends on a lot on which region of the U.S. you are talking about; this varies regionally. – Peter Shor Aug 6 '11 at 16:03
That is certainly true. But even though all I have to go on is anecdotal evidence, I would say that overall Americans are polite. – Dima Aug 6 '11 at 17:58
I don't know about polite, but Americans do tend to be more friendly than Europeans. I had a cousin visit me once, and when we left a store she asked me where I knew the cashier from. Of course, I had never met the cashier before, but he had made the usual sort of small talk — hello, how are you doing, did you find everything — and my cousin had interpreted that to mean we must know each other. – Marthaª Aug 10 '11 at 6:43

It is difficult to answer the general version of this question because often neither side is aware that there can be any misinterpretation until it has happened. I'm a Briton living in the USA, but working a lot of the time with a team in India. I am aware that there are occasionally problems, but I gave up making a list of specific examples a (long) while ago. Maybe that was a mistake.

One difference to take into account is that in England, English is the mother tongue; in America, English is likewise usually the mother tongue - Spanish is the main alternative contender. Unless I misunderstand something though, in India, English is often (normally?) the second language - learned from an early age, but after previously learning one of the many local languages first. Across India as a whole, English is the lingua franca; but within a region, there is often a local language that is used as well, or instead. Consequently, the Indian dialect of English is affected by nuances from the local languages. I notice that articles (the, a, an) are frequently omitted, as are some prepositions and other words. It isn't quite telegraphic English, but sometimes has some of the same qualities.

There are words used in America that are not used as much in England; there are words used innocuously in England that are terms of abuse in America. Euphemisms are constantly evolving. Slang and regional dialectal terms don't always transfer to other parts of the USA, let alone outside - similar problems occur in England, and I'm sure it happens in India too.

Even so, the core of English is strongly the same in all three countries. The key to clear communication is to avoid using much in the way of slang, to use clear, concise, precise terms.

The other trick is to become attuned to when there is a problem - when something isn't being understood. I regret to report that it can be difficult to spot blank faces over a telephone. Sometimes, I manage to spot the stupefied silence, but not always. However, being aware that the issue can arise is an important first step.

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I've thought about your question for a while, and it seems a bit open-ended. If it were more narrowly defined, it would be easier to answer. What I can do, however, is explain why someone might use might in place of should.

People use the "you might want to" construction when they are trying to be polite. Telling people — especially strangers — they "should" or "have to" do something sounds too direct and harsh. It's like giving someone orders, as if they were your subordinate. Use of might softens the suggestion, leaving it up to the listener to determine for himself or herself whether your idea is worthy of merit.

If you were to write out the long version of what is actually being conveyed, it might go something like this:

You are an adult who is capable of making your own choices in life, and I fully respect that, but in this situation you might want to think about a different approach from the one you're currently using. Ultimately it is, of course, your decision and I'm just trying to help.

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A scenario I experienced is when I was invited to a party and my neighbor was not. I then met him and asked if we could go together (I didn't know if he was invited). He would tend to say that "I don't think I am invited" instead of "they didn't invite me" or "I am not invited". I don't know if this way contains sarcasm but I guess many American would reply in the same fashion in such similar situations.

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