After a total of seven years in Texas, I had started to consider myself reasonably fluent in American English. I’m way past the crisps/chips, chips/french fries stage. I know that, defying all expectation, the entrée is not the first course in the restaurant. And if someone remarks on my pants, I no longer look down to check whether my underwear is on show. I wouldn’t claim to blend in – I mean, I can’t even order tomato basil soup without everyone falling about laughing – but this week I realised that I’m about as culturally integrated as someone wearing head to toe tweed, shouting, “I say, old chap!”.
A friend came round to my house for the first time. Because I’m British, I offered her a cup of tea. Because she’s American, she politely declined, with the small smile that has become familiar to me over the years of offering Americans cups of tea. It’s part bemused, as though I’d offered them a bowler hat to wear, and part delighted that, yes, living up to stereotypical cultural expectations, those Brits really are obsessed with drinking tea. (We’d hate to disappoint).
Having expected the rebuttal, but being unable not to make the offer in the first place – cultural OCD, if you like – I countered with, “Well, would you like a coffee?”. Feeling rather smug and cosmopolitan, I was a little crestfallen when the you-Brits-and-your-tea smile escalated into actual laughter. Apparently, I had just compounded my cultural faux pas. It seems that in America they drink coffee. Not a coffee or some coffee. Just coffee. Wow. All this time, and I’d never noticed the lack of units of coffee drinking.
So now I’m wondering: why this ethnolinguistic subtlety? Is it due to the American concept of bottomlessness? Have unending refills of drinks in restaurants eroded, not just the “cup of” or “glass of” from a beverage, but even the article itself, so now one just drinks “coffee” until one decides to stop?
Or is it the other way around? Does British etiquette not allow a guest more than “a” coffee before she is expected to take her leave? I’m stumped, but gramatically fascinated.
Afterword: my friend refused the drink anyway. She probably didn’t trust my British coffee-making abilities.