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Other side of the world, that is

by Nancy Halverson


As some of you know, my family moved to Sheffield, England in July 2002.

Progress so far has been slow. It's a large enough city -- claims to be the fourth largest in England -- but that doesn't necessarily give me a solid base to work from. There isn't much life in IT here in this part of England. The majority of work in software and communications seems to be in "The South".

Where?

Okay, a little geography lesson - Sheffield is in Yorkshire, which is about a four-hour drive from London (two-and-a-half hours by direct train if, if, and if.) Anything around London is considered to be "The South". London itself is just called "The City", quite amusing really, since most English houses prefer to be huddled up close together, so that even small rural towns have about the same density as a city. Yorkshire is rolling hills and moors (scrubby land covered with heather and sheep) with a rebellious reputation and many ancient castles, people and industry.

Results of War

Ironically, there seems to be so much that our profession could do for English life in general. Basic communications are bad. My personal theory is that the culture never recovered from the threat of German invasion in World War II, and they therefore like to keep knowledge closely held that might help an outsider to appear as an insider. Famously, all the street signs were torn down, and maps were destroyed during the war, and, I figure, they've never been recreated.

Well, okay, so there are some street signs, but they hide them.

Acronyms

It's also acronym-mania here. And unfortunately, it's always assumed that everyone knows what the acronyms stand for. Even in newspapers and advertisements, the acronyms are rarely defined. I figure that it might be helpful in their national fundraising campaigns if people understood that the NSPCC means National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. That definition, by the way, is buried on the "about us" page of their website. I've never seen it defined in any of their ads. And, believe me, there are so many other examples.

Being an Outsider

My conclusion is that direct language scares people. I've been told by some that the idea of ‘belonging to the club' is very important, and, I must agree, that's the communications principle I see the most. Something like, "if you understand it, the club will be cheapened by you, since you're an outsider." It's not an overt xenophobia, but it's so deep in the communications psyche that it's quite effective. Newcomers must ask questions and take nothing for granted.

The STC's Presence

As for the STC, its presence is negligible outside London. There's a website, apparently a newsletter (which I've never received) and a quiet discussion list. Even in London, there's not much apparent activity in the group. STC meetings are quarterly, held in a pub, over lunch, and sometimes include a speaker. I have yet to get to a meeting.

My suggestion of trying to put together a meeting here in Sheffield for the writers of the North (Manchester, Leeds, Scotland and Ireland) got a lukewarm response. I might be able to pull off something of a meeting, but it'll just be a poor shadow compared to what you've got in Waterloo.

Without the networking of an active group, it's a tough grind finding work. There are courses, mostly distance education, for technical writers, usability, or Web work.

Another group is the ISTC (Institute for Scientific and Technical Communication), which offers a different perspective, and may be a larger group. I'm currently looking into it.

Recruitment Agencies

It may just be my circumstances, but from what I hear, most information about new jobs comes from specialized recruitment agencies. There are also specialist job boards on the Internet, which is a central location where recruiters post jobs.

From my experience, these recruitment agents are mythical -- I've spoken to just two in over a year. E-mails and phone messages go unanswered. Walking into offices might work, but usually, you can't see anyone in this country without making an appointment to make an appointment.

New Identification With Immigrants

Moving to a new country isn't easy -- there are always new things to get used to and new ideas. It's one of the reasons why we wanted to leave Canada for a bit. However, I now identify so much more with all immigrants to anywhere -- language barriers exist and prejudices get in the way. Everyone should learn to include outsiders whenever they meet them, and find out what barriers might exist in their own little worlds, which keep outsiders feeling like outsiders.

Language Barriers

You may be surprised to know that Canadian English isn't the same as UK English. Okay, not so surprising, but the reality is quite different than what you might expect. After reading many English books, and seeing television and films, I'm hit almost daily by expressions that are common, but I've never heard before.

Nancy Halverson and her family visit London, England Did you know that here in England horns don't honk - they hoot? "Phwaor" is the sound you make when you see something you really lust after. No one sorts anything out - it just gets "sorted". A "bog" isn't swampy land, but a toilet. If plans start to come undone, "it all goes pear-shaped". One really good expression is "spat the dummy" - to flip out on someone. You need to be careful with the word "pants" - you need to say trousers, unless you're talking about your underwear. And the perennial "chips" vs "crisps" vs "French fries" conundrum confuses many North Americans. "Tea" can be a meal in the evening, or a cuppa (you can never be sure). "Sick" is barf, and you're "poorly" when you're ill. Someone from the Indian region is referred to as "Asian" and Chinese/Japanese as "Orientals". Oh, and if you make a V for victory sign with your fingers, and then turn it around, showing the back of your hand to the opposite person, you're swearing at them.

And when you greet someone, you don't say "Hi, how are you?" you say "Y'alright?" For the first little while, I always thought that someone was recovering from something whenever I'd hear this exchange.

Accents

I dare anyone to comprehend the South Yorkshire accent (yes, it's different from the West Yorkshire (Leeds, Bradford) - or the North Yorkshire (York) - less than 20 miles apart.) But I'm proud to say that I now understand all the dialogue in "The Full Monty".

The Grammar

The accepted grammar in this country would amaze you. For instance, "I were sat at table, when I heard a hoot. A dust-lorrie blocked road and motors driving down pavement!" Translation: "I was sitting at the table when I heard a honk. A garbage truck was blocking the street and the cars were driving on the sidewalk."

Even BBC types (although naturally, not those educated at Oxbridge) will say "I was stood at..." and drop articles where we'd never dream of it.

I'm convinced that English is different in every culture where it's used, and it's just not as universal as we thought. However, it's truly an amazingly robust language, which never seems to be broken, but always needs to be fixed.

Contact Information

If you want to reach me, e-mail me at nancy.halverson@btopenworld.com.


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