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Confident Speech Culture Briefs

Pronunciation change

All languages tend to change, even within a lifetime. Over time, the changes can be substantial. If you want to perfect your English, learn contemporary English: the language of today!

Watch a movie from the 1930’s, and you may notice that the actors sound a little bit different from speakers we hear today. The difference is small, but nonetheless real! The language of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is considered early Modern English, but there have been significant changes in people’s pronunciation and language since then.

English of the 1300’s is called Middle English. If we listen to Middle English as it was pronounced by the famous Middle English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), most of us cannot understand it at all! Middle English does not sound like present-day English. We need to read it and study it. The vowels sounded very different from those of Modern English. Also, many sounds that were pronounced in the 1300’s are now silent in Modern English. Someday, centuries in the future, speakers of English may not understand English the way we speak it today!

turkeyThanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving Day is an original American holiday.  It started with Puritan settlers who came in 1620 from England to seek greater religious freedom.  They settled in what is now Massachusetts.  After surviving a very harsh winter, they were helped by the native Americans to plant corn and other crops.  In November, 1621, they celebrated their plentiful harvest with a feast of Thanksgiving. It is traditional to eat turkey and many other foods that the Pilgrims ate at that first great feast.

Small talk

Small talk is when we speak with other people, simply for the sake of making conversation.  Often the topics are predictable and inoffensive.  What is said is usually obvious to both the speaker and listener.

What is the purpose of small talk? 

  • To establish a friendly mood between two speakers;
  • To begin or end a conversation in a gradual, friendly manner;
  • To avoid silences that might be awkward or uncomfortable between two people. 

In various cultures, different topics are considered appropriate for small talk.  In some cultures, it is normal to ask people about family members, even if one does not know them well.  In other cultures, this would be considered intrusive.  Here are some topics that are considered appropriate for small talk in North America:

  • The weather;
  • A shared experience, such as a party both speakers attended;
  • A topic of common knowledge in entertainment, sports, or the news;
  • A compliment about appearance;
  • Enjoyable experiences such as a weekend or vacation.

Fahrenheit and Celsius Conversion

Fahrenheit is the temperature scale used in the United States. Nearly everyone else has adopted the Celsius scale. Most Americans simply are not accustomed to the Celsius scale, and most people from other countries are not accustomed to the Fahrenheit scale.

To convert between Fahrenheit and Celsius, there is a fast, easy technique for people who know New York and its subway system. Find out more!

Groundhog DayGroundhog Day

Groundhog Day? This one of those uniquely American folk holidays. In much of the United States, the winter feels cold, long, and hard. On Groundhog Day, we pause lightheartedly to remind ourselves that springtime is on the way.

According to legend, the groundhog comes out of his hole on February 2 after a long winter sleep and looks for his shadow. If he sees his shadow, it's a sign that there are six more weeks of bad weather, and he goes back into his hole. If, on the other hand, he does not see his shadow, it's a sign of an early spring. He might decide to stay above ground.

Friday the 13th

Superstitious beliefs hold that 13 is an unlucky number.  When the 13th day of the month falls on Friday, superstitious people fear that it may be an unlucky day.  (In a few cultures, Tuesday the 13th is considered the unlucky day.)

Very few people are seriously fearful of Friday the 13th, but people often make humorous reference to it when it occurs.  No one knows with any certainty the origin of this superstition, although some scholars have proposed theories.

A series of famous Friday the 13th movies in the 1980´s famously commemorated the day with tales of horror.  A new 2009 film continues the theme.

In 2009, Friday the 13th will occur in two consecutive months:  February and March, as well as in November.

Valentine’s Daycupid

Valentine’s Day (February 14) celebrates romantic love.  It is named for one or more early Christian saints, but very few people even stop to think about the origins of this holiday.  Its history is disputed.  According to one legend, young Roman soldiers were forbidden by Emperor Claudius II to marry.  A priest named Valentine disobeyed this law and performed marriage ceremonies anyway.

Today, people of all ages and religions mark this day.  Many schools, stores, restaurants, and other businesses are decorated with symbols of romantic love.  These include heart shapes and representations of Cupid—a winged baby boy with a bow and arrow.  Children and adults send greeting cards with expressions of love, affection, or humor.  Adult couples sometimes celebrate with a romantic dinner.  Gifts of flowers (particularly red roses) and chocolates are traditional.

Washington’s Birthday or Presidents Day

Washington’s Birthday or Presidents Day is an American holiday celebrated the third Monday in February.  The holiday was originally celebrated on February 22, the exact day on which the first U.S. president was born. 

Washington’s Birthday is a federal holiday in the United States.  Schools, government offices, banks, the stock exchanges, and many businesses are closed for the holiday.  Nearly all  stores are open.   How is the holiday observed?

More about Washington’s Birthday

What is a comfortable distance between people?

How near should you be when you are interacting with Americans?

The anthropologist Edward Hall studied personal space and found that Americans tend to favor a slightly greater distance than in many other cultures. 

Find out what are the comfort zones for most Americans.

To get a cup of coffee, say it right!

Recently, a client at Confident Speech expressed his frustration with buying coffee.  Every day on his way to work, he would stop to buy a cup of coffee to take with him.  Although he spoke English with an accent, the words he used to order coffee were pronounced clearly.  Why did the counter person never seem to understand him?

Click to find out how to order coffee perfectly!

RSVP: How to respond to invitations in the U.S.

When an invitation to a party or special celebration comes by mail or by email, you will often see the letters RSVP, followed by contact information for the host. What are you supposed to do? The answers might surprise you!

Click to learn about invitations

Tips (gratuities) in the U.S.

Just as in most other countries, tipping or giving gratuities is part of U.S. culture. The difference is that people are customarily expected to tip more in the U.S. than in many other countries. We pretend that the tip is optional, but it really is almost always an obligation.

When you give a tip, you are giving a cash gift to somebody who has provided a personal service to you: a restaurant waiter, hairdresser, hotel bellman, housekeeping staff, coat-check attendant, parking attendant, etc. In some cases, these service providers are paid very little salary. It is expected that most of their income will come from tips. The gratuity is rarely included on the bill. It is considered bad form to ask the service provider how much of a tip to give.

Suggestions for tipping in the U.S.

Mother’s Day, Father’s Day

In the United States, Mother's Day is celebrated on the second Sunday in May.  Father's Day is celebrated on the third Sunday in June.  If you are new to the U.S., you may want to learn about this American tradition.

All about Mother’s Day and Father’s Day

“Sugarcoating” - part of American culture

Some bitter-tasting pills have an outer layer of sugar (a “sugarcoating”). The sugarcoating makes them easier to swallow. This is much like our style of communicating in American culture. We communicate with politeness and some indirectness to make our message more pleasant. Watch our 3-minute video!


Halloween, October 31, is a colorful and whimsical holiday celebrated with masks and costumes. It has a unique tradition in modern American. However, it has roots in traditions of the ancient Celtic peoples from the British Isles.

Quick facts about Halloween in America

Independence Day

Independence Day, also known as "the Fourth of July," is a uniquely American holiday.    Independence Day commemorates the date (July 4, 1776) when the founders of the United States signed the Declaration of Independence.  This represents the birth of the United States.  The new country had been a colony of England.

On the night of July 4, many towns and cities have a public display of fireworks.  However, in most places, it is illegal for private citizens to buy and explode fireworks.

How is July 4 celebrated?

Summer camp

Summer camp is a big American tradition. If you or people you know have children, there is a good chance that some of these children go to camp in the summer. What is summer camp? How do children spend their time there?

Click to learn all about summer camp.

Labor Day

Labor Day in the United States is celebrated the first Monday in September, creating a long weekend. It marks the official end of summer. Many people take advantage of the long holiday weekend

More fascinating facts about Labor Day in the U.S.