American Idioms

One of my Italian American friends jokes that she is so accustomed to making gestures with her hands while she talks that if someone tied her hands behind her back, she wouldn’t be able to speak.

The same could be said of Americans and our idiomatic expressions. These are so integral to the way we think and express ourselves that we typically use them without even realizing it. As someone who was born and raised here, I can attest that it is totally normal to say something like, “keep me in the loop,” “he opened up a big can of worms,” and “let’s call a spade a spade.” If I used these idioms among fellow Americans, I would be able to take for granted that my listeners would “catch my drift” (understand what I’m saying), allowing for some regional and generational variation.

The globally-minded among us are aware that these meanings can get lost in translation, so we try to avoid idioms when speaking to people from other countries. However, this good intention creates a new problem: When we remove idioms, we struggle to find the right words to use instead. As a result, our language feels stilted and inauthentic, especially in live, unscripted, verbal communication. In other words, when we take out idioms, we feel like “the cat has our tongue” and we become “tongue-tied.” And since public speaking is highly valued as a personal and professional skill, most of us do not want to feel “at a loss for words” (yet another way to say that we can’t express ourselves).

This reality in American communication means that while some of us can manage to avoid idioms in emails (which we can edit), or in high-profile moments like a presentation (which we can practice and prepare for), most of us will inevitably rely on idiomatic expressions in our day-to-day communication. And for good cultural reasons:

  • It is efficient: Because idioms are commonplace, they allow us to use a kind of cultural short-cut to get our message across. For people who see time as being like money, any way to communicate faster is going to be appealing.
  • It is egalitarian: Americans generally prefer to speak at a level that ordinary people can understand, even at work. Idioms let us do that by helping us communicate through sports, farm, and other “common-man” references. (Once, I used the word “tumultuous” at a staff meeting and everyone made fun of me for pulling out a big word. If I had just used the idiomatic expression “rollercoaster ride” instead, everyone would have understood me).
  • It is comfortable: It’s hard to overstate how much Americans value comfort. Idioms feel like a cozy sweatshirt that is slightly worn out but still fits just right. They tell us that we belong, they put us at ease, and they make us “feel at home.” Even if we have to alter our language in some situations, idioms are so woven into our psyche and way of interacting that we could never throw them all away, even if we wanted to.

Altogether, this means that it is inevitable that you will hear idioms as part of your daily life at school and work in the U.S. The more familiar you can become with these expressions,  the more you will feel like you are “part of the club” as a cultural insider. And, the less work that local Americans have to do to communicate with you, the easier it will be for them to really embrace you as a member of that club.

So, where to begin?

First, familiarize yourself with common American idioms. If you want to see examples and their definitions, try the free online guide put out by the U.S. Department of State. This will help you get a general sense for what our idioms look like, and what kinds of topics they help us discuss. As a little exercise, see if you can identify patterns in our topics – that is, are there certain situations where idioms really seem common? You might also want to mark those that you’ve heard already, and “give yourself a pat on the back” (praise yourself) if you notice certain expressions that you’re already using fluently.

The second step is to continuously observe when somebody uses an idiom in real life, in a context that is meaningful to you. This is both more efficient and safer than mindlessly memorizing lists of idioms. If you pay the most attention to the specific ones that your teachers, peers, bosses, and coworkers are currently using, you will not only learn the idioms themselves but will have live examples of how to use them correctly.

Beyond “keeping your ears open,” consider making notes whenever you hear someone use an idiomatic expression. Try to include the context of how it was used so that you will develop a better sense for its full meaning. And, try to jot down the exact structure of the sentence it was used in so you can get a feel for how the grammar around it works. This is useful whether you understood the meaning or not. If you did understand, you are ready to practice; if you did not understand, you are ready to investigate the meaning.

Third, you need to integrate this knowledge so that it is not just a novelty but is an organic part of your own communication. Practice using your newfound idioms at home, where you can experiment and not worry about making a mistake. Read them aloud, write a pretend email, or replay your conversations from that day and consider whether there were any idioms that might have fit those situations.

If you feel comfortable in your social environment, another option is to simply ask your friends and colleagues what a certain expression means. At least in the places where I have lived and worked, I don’t think anyone would mind answering this question, as long as it does not require continual interruptions. (You don’t want to interject at a meeting or interrupt the professor every time you are unsure of what an expression means. That’s what the notebook is for). This is another good reason to build relationships with locals early on – it really helps to have a patient and welcoming cultural insider who is willing to explain the subtle meanings in these expressions.

Finally, remember that while idioms are an essential part of American English, it is more important that you understand their meaning than that you use them on a daily basis. Nobody is counting or looking for your idiom of the day, and it’s not necessary or a good idea to stuff as many into a conversation as possible. Americans use them because they feel right, because they help us convey meaning, and because they are easy; with practice and patience, you’ll know when it feels right to you, and you’ll know how to do it, too.

Do you want practice communicating in American English? I’m available in-person in the Phoenix area, and over Skype everywhere else.

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