I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve heard people use words like „exaggerate” and „over the top” to describe the way Americans speak…
I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve heard people use words like „exaggerate” and „over the top” to describe the way Americans speak. It can be a bit confusing for cultures that are more straightforward, more literal in their common speech. Whether it’s calling a new colleague at work a „best friend,” or expressing romantic love towards a vacation spot or a piece of chocolate, the language can seem a bit strange, maybe even unnecessary. But it’s not without a reason. Here’s why Americans can sound a little bit, or a lotta bit, over the top.
A Culture of Optimism
This is definitely a topic of debate, but generally speaking the United states has always had a culture of ambition. Whether the fruits of such ambition are mostly positive or not, we can argue ’til the cows come home. But from the very beginning of American history, Americans are known for setting very high and sometimes impossible goals for themselves, for their careers, and for their country. Remember that show called „Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” or those movies with Tom Cruise, „Mission Impossible” where the mission isn’t actually so impossible? Think about all the presidential campaigns that promise to change literally the entire world in four years? This is American optimism, and it colors the way that we speak.
Literally Doesn’t Mean Literally
So within a culture of optimism is the freedom to think big, and with the freedom to think big is the tendency to talk big. This is more common in big cities like New York City, which used to be one of the main places where dreams became reality. If you listen closely, you will notice that the bigger a person speaks, the bigger the city they live in. Whether it’s with idioms, metaphors, sayings, or using the word literally to exaggerate, the culture in the big cities of the U.S. matches its lingo. Case in point, there are at least seven common phrases to express confusion or disagreement:
Are you out of your mind?
Are you crazy?
I swear, you’ve completely lost it. You’ve gotta be kidding me…
Is this a joke?
Am I being Punk’d?
Are you on crack?
None of these phrases are really questioning the mental condition of the listener, they are – say it with me – exaggerations! This is what makes speaking English so fun! You are free to say literally the craziest things to show your emotions and no one will judge you for it, as long as it’s funny and in context. The English language is never stagnant, it is constantly changing even while we’re speaking. So find an American friend and think of something original to say. They might just ask you, „Are you out of your mind?!”
For your learning
Straightforward – simple, clear, honest
Optimism – confidence and certainty about a positive result
Over the top – more than necessary, more than expected
'Til the cows come home – idiom about farming meaning for a long time Tendency – a natural desire or move toward a thing or action
Punk’d – American hidden camera comedy series from 2003
Crack – short word for addictive drug, cocaine, rampant in the 1980’s