Three types of reactions you get when you tell someone you’re British and what I’ve learnt from them so far
The phrase, “Hello, I’m Sophie, a ERASMUS student from Britain”, felt like my best friend when I arrived in Spain. I thought introductions would be a routine operation for the first week and then things would move on. However, one of the most surprising realisations I’ve made so far is that declaring your British roots creates a wide variety of responses.
In my first Italian class I was asked to spell my name. Here, I saw the first, and most frequent, type of reaction. As I said ‘S-O-P-H’ a look of confusion swept across the tutor’s face. When I said the final two letters, ‘I-E’, it turned from confusion to disgruntled. He attempted to say my name, stopped, looked, and asked that all-important question “¿Y de donde estas?”/ “and where are you from?”. I muttered back in a nervous voice, “Estoy de Gran Bretagne”/ “I’m from Great Britain”.
The disgruntled look stayed on his face. He attempted to pronounce my name but couldn’t have been further away from saying Sophie. He continued looking at me puzzled, huffed, and walked off. At the time, I did feel like a bit of an intruder.
Overall, I haven’t found this reaction to be hard to deal with, or rude, but more of a lesson in stereotypes. I have realised that our little island, although part of Europe, is seen with very different eyes when you’re standing on the other side of the channel.
The more I have spoken with locals and questioned the reason for this reaction, one thing has become clear. In Spain, British people are sometimes described as ‘Guiris’. This does not mean foreign tourist but rather encapsulates the idea of strangeness in terms of language and behaviour. Therefore, the term is often not applied to the Italians or French, but rather to British and German people. ‘Guiris’ are considered to look a certain way (with the crucial element being the lack of tan!) and be unaccustomed to the Spanish way of life.
It’s fascinating to see the ways people exist as individuals within the broader cultural stereotype and find my place amongst this
To be swept under this category came as quite the surprise. However, Asturias is not accustomed to foreign tourists, so my being here is quite unusual for locals. All of this reminds me that a year abroad is a great opportunity to see past stereotypes and experience cultural nuances more closely. It’s fascinating to see the ways people exist as individuals within the broader cultural stereotype and find my place amongst this. But the reaction to being British is not always so generalised. It sometimes gives you celebrity status.
This is the second type of reaction I have found. Being a ‘ERASMUS student’ means that the mix of nationalities you will encounter whilst you’re abroad is endless. I have really enjoyed meeting such a mix of people and seeing how they live. Of course, the lingua franca of ERASMUS students is English. So, the Italians, Finns, Germans and French students I have met, have all had a very similar reaction. “Say something in English”, “It’s amazing you are British… we love your accent”. I think this reaction comes from a similar place as when I speak with native Hispanophones and Francophones. The wonder of having a native at your fingertips when you’re learning their language is exciting (for languages students, at least).
To be on the receiving end of this excitement is quite an odd experience and I started to feel like a walking talking dictionary. I also became conscious of how I spoke and sounded compared to the stereotyped British accent people have in their heads.
I am still often told, “it’s great that I have got to know you because now my English will improve, and it can help me get a better job”. Of course, I know English is a very important global language, but the constancy with which people think about its power to improve their chances in life really surprised me.
However, seeing how different people react has been such an interesting way to escape the globalised world we live in
This reaction truly demonstrates the powerful status of English in the world. Of course, this is no reason for English people to not speak other languages, but I have realised how lucky I am to be a native anglophone. Equally, it does also show how history has evolved and still impacts our modern society.
You’ll be pleased to know the final reaction is something less extreme and thought-provoking. There is a small group of people who say, “oh great”, try and pronounce your name properly, and then move on. This group was much more what I had imagined before I arrived in Spain. However, seeing how different people react has been such an interesting way to escape the globalised world we live in!
One of the little steps I have taken as a result of these moments is to think about what it must feel like to be an international student in the UK. I would hope I fall somewhere between the second and third group of people when I speak with other international students; making nationality a brief yet interesting talking point which allows our differences to be enjoyed and explored together naturally.