It’s can be refreshing when you’re travelling to have someone recognise your accent, but pleasure can turn to offence if someone gets it wrong. If you want to upset a New Zealander, try suggesting they’re from Australia.
Kiwi picture from Shutterstock
In a discussion about regional accents before a conference session kicked off when I was in the US last week, one speaker suggested that the smaller your country, the more likely you are to be offended if someone guesses you’re from a larger nearby neighbour. “Australians don’t get offended if you guess they’re from New Zealand, but Kiwis hate it if you say they’re Australians. Same for the Dutch and the Germans.” I’m not sure that’s an absolute rule (some people take offence more readily regardless of their origin), but it’s an interesting speculation.
The level of distinction can also vary based on where you’re visiting. In the US, you’re often lucky if someone notices that you’re Australian rather than British. In the UK, more people can successfully distinguish Australians from New Zealanders. In France, native speakers can pick the part of the country you’re from based on the accent. What remains constant is that some individuals will be offended if you make a guess and get it wrong. National and regional origin is an important aspect of identity for many people.
How can you avoid those solecisms yourself? While it’s tempting to try and demonstrate the breadth of your knowledge by guessing at someone’s accent, it can be a risky business if you’re unsure. Sticking to a more general statement — “your accent suggests you’re not from around here, where are you from?” — can be a safer approach.
Which accent mishaps have tripped you up or upset you in the past? Share your tale in the comments.