INDIANAPOLIS—Sir Richard Branson was in the city last month to meet with his executive staff of Virgin Enterprises America. This was the first time he had visited and met with his highest ranking American employees. He was accompanied by a small entourage of British staff who joined him in the conference room for the Executive meeting. After very brief introductions, Branson settled in to his chair at the head of the table, ready to be wowed by a series of presentations by the American brain trust.
From the outset of the first presentation, Branson’s British staff noticed something was wrong. As soon as the first American began speaking, Branson appeared troubled. He blinked hard; appeared to fidget; crossed his arms and took on an obviously defensive posture. By the fourth American presentation he appeared physically uncomfortable, and his British staff—trying not to draw explicit attention to the awkward situation—suggested a short break.
Once away from the Americans, Branson spoke his mind. “What in god’s name is going on out there? These are my executives? They can’t even speak proper English! Do you hear them? Half the time I can’t even make out what they are saying.”
One of his staffers noted that these were certainly educated men and women. Most held advanced business degrees and had attended prestigious schools throughout their lives. As a group they were predominantly white, the majority was male, and most of them had been raised in wealthy families. They were from throughout the United States, with the Northeast, California, and the Midwest particularly well represented.
“I don’t care who they think they are or where they bloody went to school; they sound like a bunch of buffoons! I can’t believe I was able to sit there for so long; I was mortified on their behalf that they would stand up and speak like that. In public! In front of their boss!”
“Sir Richard,” dared one of his staffers, who had worked in the US for over ten years, “I’m not sure what you mean; perhaps you could elaborate a bit, so we might be able to remedy the situation.”
“Well, the most obvious is the way they INSIST on pronouncing all of their R’s—even at the ends of words. caR! baR! figuRe! It sounds absurd. What do they think this is, the 16th century? The language has evolved you know. This of course says nothing about the incorrect way they pronounce all of their vowels. It’s like nails on a chalkboard to me. I should not have to endure that, especially in my own board room.”
“Well, sir,” the staffer tried to interject, “you know there are differences in pronunciation here; Americans do have their own history and developed culture…”
“Well, let them have it, but not in my company. That may be fine if they need to talk to each other outside of work, or for talking at home—or on the street—but not here, not if you expect a pay cheque from me!”
“Sir, with all due respect, all of this merely over difference in pronunciation?”
“Merely? It’s OUR bloody language, you know. If they want to use it, they better do it right. Their insistence on talking like that shows a distinct lack of respect, not to mention laziness to bother to learn what’s right. I’d wager some of them know how to speak proper English and don’t on purpose, to show everybody that they’re ‘American’.
“And what’s more—it’s not even just the pronunciation; what about all the slang? Is that appropriate in a meeting of this level? ‘truck’ ‘elevator’ ‘drugstore’! What about that one chap who said that low production makes him ‘mad’? I assume he must have meant ‘angry’. How in the world can I expect people like this to be taken seriously; or, for that matter, even understood?
“I mean really: they get the stress in words wrong—Oh, they can’t even form verbs correctly: ‘I’ve gotten positive feedback.’ ‘gotten’ is not a word. And it’s ‘spelt’ not spelled!”
“Look, it’s unfortunate that these people had an inferior upbringing, or are simply not intelligent enough to know how to speak. (Not to mention the dozens of spelling errors I noted in their presentation packets). If they want work here, for me, they will learn how to speak like me. If not, they’re going to be dismissed.”
“But sir, this is America, and they deal almost exclusively with other Americans; surely they should be permitted to speak the way they do when dealing with each other?”
“Absolutely not. All that does is make my company appear to condone ignorance and laziness, which I won’t have. If my employees speak properly, perhaps their success will encourage other Americans to educate themselves about their language they so thoroughly mangle.”