Real English Conversations: Cultural differences (part 1 of 3)

Hi! Lori here with another edition of Real English conversations from Better at English dot com. This is my first podcast in a while because the computer I use for podcasting broke down a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, it’s still broken, but today I managed to MacGuyver enough hardware and software together to prepare some new podcasts for you.

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In today’s conversation, Michael and I discuss how native speakers use fillers such as “umm” and “uh” and “mmm hmm” in conversations, and how these fillers are not always the same in different cultures. This is the first part of a series of three: in parts two and three we go on to discuss some rather amusing pronunciation and vocabulary differences between British and American English. Here is part one: Enjoy!

Conversation Transcript

Lori: I got some e-mails from people saying that they wanted to have more of the British English guy because they like hearing the difference between British and American English.

Michael: Oh well, that’s very kind of them; I’d be happy to oblige you.

L: Yeah, but there was also one guy [who complained], do you remember when I transcribed all of the umms and uhs and stuff like that?

M: Oh yes! Yeah, I try not to do that too much, to say umm and ah and uh, like so many people do, it’s something I’m very conscious of, so instead of doing that I just tend to repeat what I just said instead.

L: You know that’s really hard to transcribe.

M: I’m really sorry about that, but it’s something that I think I get from my father. He speaks that way. It’s a family thing.

L: So you don’t think it’s just a British English thing?

M: I don’t think so, but now that you mention it I’ll start to listen out for things like that. I just… you can be very conscious of the pauses, the gaps in a conversation, and people I think find that kind of awkward. As you’re thinking of the next thing to say, it’s better to be making some noise than just have a complete silence. So I think maybe that’s why I do it; it’s subconscious really.

L: And what about, you know, I’ve had some of my students say that they think that it’s really weird that if you’re listening to a speaker, you make these little encouraging noises like “Mmm hmmm, mmm hmmm”?

M: Oh yes. Yeah. Well, do you know I think that people tend to do that because it would be completely rude to interrupt somebody when they’re in the middle of a sentence and saying, “Oh yes I agree.” But you want to give the other person confirmation that you are agreeing, and encouragement. And also I think when you’re on the telephone or using Skype or something like that, you want to let them know that you’re actually still on the other end of the phone…That you haven’t lost the collec— the connection.

L: Some of my students have said that they think that would be really annoying, you know, some of my Swedish students, particularly.

M: Is that something that Swedish people don’t do then when you’re speaking to them on the phone?

L: They make this weird sound instead of, of “Mmm hmmm,” “Uh huh,” “Oh, right,” they do this thing where they sort of suck in air. They go [imitates gasping sound]

M: Oh yes, I’ve heard of this, OK. Yeah, I’d think that they were gasping for air.

L: Yeah, when I first moved to Sweden and I heard people like that on the phone when I couldn’t hear the other end of the conversation, that’s the sound that we make in…where I’m from in southern California, anyway…we make that sound when we’ve heard something really horrible and surprising, like if you’d heard there’d just been a terrible accident, that’s the sound you would make. So I was always thinking that, “Oh my God! What had…what has happened? What has happened?” And it turns out

M: Well, I think that would be the same for me if someone was just a sharp intake of breath like when you take your car, to the garage, and you say, and they tell you how much it’s going to cost to have your exhaust fixed. And you respond with [gasps], that’s what you would do.

L: Exactly. It’s funny, you said garage!

[to be continued]

Final words

In the next podcast in this series, Michael and I talk about some funny pronunciation and vocabulary differences between British English and American English. Well, I think they are funny, anyway! But then again, I don’t watch TV, so I’m easily amused…

Thanks for tuning in, and thanks again for your donations and supportive emails and comments! It makes my day to hear that Better at English is useful for your language learning. You can email me at info AT BetterAtEnglish DOT com, or call the voice mail line at 1 for the USA, 206 350 2283. Bye for now!

Vocabulary list

I’d be happy to oblige you
[I’d = I would] This is a phrase you can use to show that you are eager and willing to help someone. To oblige someone means to help them or do something that pleases them.

To transcribe something means to write down something that was spoken (or played or written in another form). Lori transcribes [writes down] the spoken conversations so that Better at English listeners can read along as they listen to the podcasts.
If you are conscious of something, you are aware of it.

Tend to
If you tend to do something, you are likely to do it (but you don’t necessarily ALWAYS do it).

If something is hard to do, it is difficult to do.

Something…I get from my father
In this case, get means inherited or learned. Michael means that his own speaking style has been influenced by his father’s style.


If something is subconscious, it means that you are not conscious or aware of it. Something that is subconscious can influence your actions even if you are not aware of it.

Something that is encouraging makes you feel more confident, or makes you more likely to want to do something.

If you give someone confirmation of something, you show them that it is certain or that you understand.


Something that is annoying makes you feel angry or irritated (annoyed).

In informal conversation, native speakers often introduce reported speech with the verb go. Many careful users of English disapprove of using go in this way, so you should not copy it.

If someone gasps, they breathe in very quickly and sharply through their mouth.

Turns out
In this case, to turn out means to happen in a certain way or have a particular result. Lori didn’t finish her sentence, but she meant to say: “It turns out that the gasping sound means something different than I thought it did.”