BRITISHNESS IN LA-LA LAND: Ye Olde English and Selling Yourself

Jennie McGuirk is a creative consultant working in Los Angeles. Here she explains her love for her home town of Manchester and how she defines Mancunian philosophy.

Jennie also shares amusing stories of the British experience in a world of truth-bombs, self-promotion and confident 20-year-olds walking around speaking like they’re 40-something.


➤ Hi Jennie! Where are you right now? 

I’m actually at the top of a mountain in the Santa Monica mountain range. It’s a place called Topanga Canyon which has really quite an amazing history from a musical perspective. Anybody that loves Neil Young or The Mamas and The Papas, you know there was a lot of recording that happened up here in the 60’s and then you know there was all sorts of shenanigans going on with The Doors, who used to come and play up here and obviously the Manson murders all happened here and stuff.

But what I’ve learned is just that it’s been a place throughout history for people to retreat from the city, from L.A for all of the different reasons why you might want to retreat. And so yeah, I’ve been here for five years now and it’s just magical. It’s really magical. 

It’s really cool that you still find it magical even after how many years total have you been there now in L.A? 

So 13 years – it’s coming up to 13 years in October. 

And do you still genuinely find it magical? 

Oh yeah, I mean, I love it. The landscape is just absolutely mesmeric you know and I’m at the top of the mountain and then I just do that crazy winding journey 20 minutes down and then I’m at the beach!

And it’s the light, isn’t it? I mean, you’ll remember the lights. You’re bathed in this warm light and I think that the light was definitely the first thing that attracted me and that’s what continues to just hypnotize me, I suppose. 

So 13 years! Can you take me back to 2008? What was your thought process before you moved and what made you move? 

While I was in London — I’d been in London for just over seven years and I guess I’d always known that even since I was really young, that I probably would not be settling in the U.K. I guess I just always had this inner feeling that I would be somewhere out there in the big wide world.

I’d had exposure to some really amazing experiences in the States throughout my teens and twenties and then I’d had the most incredible time working with some amazing creative talents — the creative energy in London is just obviously incredible you know, but I just had this feeling that it was never going to be where I was going to settle.

And I was just longing for beach life, outdoor living, kind of just a healthier way of living. Actually I left at [age] 32 so I guess I was really looking to see where I was going to put down some roots and I didn’t even really think about it.

I’d visited L.A and I just thought, ‘This is it!’ It took me a while to figure out how to get out there and everything but I got out on my O-1 visa — the artist visa. I had a job opportunity that I’m really super grateful for and I managed to make it happen. 

So did you always have California in mind or did you consider anywhere else? East Coast? 

I never really considered East Coast. I had an amazing experience in New York but I didn’t want that kind of really tough grind of a city. You know, just energetically I was looking for something that was much more about like living life rather than just working and just trying to survive.

I had considered Pacific Northwest and San Francisco but I just couldn’t do the weather. I was like why would I travel so many thousands of miles just to be in the gray?

When people ask you where you’re from in L.A, what do you say? 

Manchester. Every time. I’m so proud of it, you know. It’s very unusual that people don’t know Manchester.

Yeah they know the football. That’s in my experience. Is that the first thing you get or do you get something else when you say Manchester? 

I think a lot of the time, I’m speaking to people that really know the music.


Yeah but more like Joy Division. People that maybe knew a time, you know, Factory Records and The Smiths — the number of people that have The Smiths on their Spotify playlists and stuff.

So I don’t feel like I’ve ever really had to explain where it is and I also feel that in a way it’s like we are the messengers coming out you know, wherever we are around the world, we’re the messengers of where we’re from and the kind of values and the kind of philosophies that we have as Mancunians. 

So when an American asks you, ‘What is Manchester about? What is Mancunian philosophy?’ what would you say? 

Well, I would definitely say that there’s a sense of city pride. It’s definitely rooted in us being very grounded, very down to earth. It’s a very famous, successful city but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Time and time again this is what keeps me grounded I think and brings me back to some of my senses in a way.

And you know, I laugh because I can hear my brother’s voice all the time you know, if things get a bit too serious or if things get a little bit too dramatic or whatever over here, which they often do, it’s just this sense of calming and I suppose this sense of centering that I have when I’m brought back down to earth.

And it’s definitely grounded in humour, so it’s kind of like being able to laugh at stuff that knocks you off your center. 

Yeah I totally agree with the humour part. It’s like whenever you see anything British and you need a comedic sidekick, it’s always most effective when you have a Manc accent! For some reason if you say the same joke in a strong Manc accent, it’s just funnier in my opinion. 

[Laughs] And I think it’s the voice of reason. And the irony though is that probably 90 percent of people think I’m an Aussie. Have you ever had that? 

Never Aussie! 

Yeah I think the accent throws them because they’re used to hearing you know southerners.

Now that you say that maybe I can see where they’re coming from with your accent because it’s much softer than a typical London accent.

Yeah and I appreciate mine’s a little bit hybrid because I guess over the years I’ve had to just make myself understood. 

Exactly! Same with me! Like, I have people sometimes from Manchester saying, ‘You don’t talk like you’re from Manchester anymore, you put on this posh thing.’ It’s not that we put it on, we have to be understood. We have to think about the listener.

It’s true, even in Scotland because I actually went to the Edinburgh College of Arts and even up there, you know, I found that I had to slightly change the way that I was pronouncing things. There are still prejudices out there in the U.K. Obviously it doesn’t translate when you’re living abroad. 

You say it doesn’t translate abroad, I would say most Brits, especially in the entertainment industry get the reverse which is that Brits are seen as more sophisticated and they get the positive vibes from Americans. Have you taken advantage of your Britishness? 

Yeah you can’t not! I mean, it’s very different from say, being in France where they just hate us! Just as a personal experience, to come here and for people to be really welcoming and not just welcoming but you can see the entertainment that you’re actually giving them just by speaking.

Yeah, you can kind of play on it, just watching their faces — especially if you leave L.A and go to the different places that don’t have so much exposure to Brits — you just start speaking and then you see them trying desperately not to show how excited they are. But they can’t help it! 

I love this one particular one-line joke – it was a meme or something. It was saying, ‘Do British people talk that way when nobody’s listening?’ and I thought that was such a cool joke! 

Oh yeah, people will say to me, ‘I love your accent,’ and I say, ‘Oh but I love your accent!’ They say, ‘But I don’t have an accent!’ and I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ They think that they’re just completely neutral and I’m always quite amused by that. 

Yeah they think they’re the baseline. 

Yeah, it’s a lot to do with how they’ve been raised on the monarchy and ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ or whatever it is you know, they just have this rose-tinted glasses nostalgic impression of what it is to be British I suppose, and that’s part of why you can obviously also play it up and kind of like use it to your advantage sometimes. Because they kind of go all gooey-eyed, don’t they? It’s that kind of romance of it, I think. That’s what they buy into. 

Yeah, for me it’s been slightly different. I don’t mind it though obviously, when I’m in L.A, they think I’m Mexican or — because there’s such a huge Asian-American population and Mexican-American population — so I’m immediately that. And I find it cool. I’ll be with a friend and my friend will say, ‘He’s from England,’ and they’ll just look at me and go, ‘There’s no way!’ If I say I’m from East L.A they find that easier to believe and sometimes I just have to go with it. 

That’s the great thing though about educating people is that you are a pioneer of that multicultural Britain where it’s like actually, you know, you’re educating them and I think that that’s super important. 

I was watching NBA on TNT and Kenny Smith who’s one of the hosts talks about how is friends find it weird that his wife has a British accent because they find it hard to imagine that there are black people in the UK.

Maybe that says something about what we’re exporting in terms of content, it’s like, ‘What does it mean to be British?’ What does it look like to be British? And you know, we definitely are in a very overdue, very necessary time of reevaluating what it means to be British and you know I think that this is really important that it plays out not just at home but on a global scale. 

It was a conversation that was already happening obviously but then you know summer 2021 the conversation definitely got more airtime and I think it can only be a good thing. 

Now, when you left UK, you went for the beaches and the sunshine; the first time I ever went to L.A, it was just to see the Lakers! What’s your opinion on American sports? Have you ever gotten into it that much? 

Not really. I grew up watching American football because my brother was a huge fan so every Sunday night it would be playing on Channel Four. I’ve been to one American football game since I’ve lived here and that was actually in Philadelphia because he’s a massive Eagles fan. And that was spectacular. It was for his 40th birthday and I actually managed to call up and speak to the right people and get us pre-game kind of access down to watch them all warming up and that was really special. 

Did you manage to follow the game? 

Well he’s really good at explaining it to us, but it was more like being in a club, like an outdoor club because the music, the fireworks and that blew me away. I have to say they do know what they’re doing in turning it into this full-scale entertainment. You can see why there’s so much money in it because it’s just this whole show. 

Just on that subject – do you think Brits need to get better at selling the way Americans do it? The way Americans are not ashamed at the ‘S’ word, you know – selling. They love to sell whereas that’s not a typically British thing to do. 

No you’re totally right and you have to do it in order to get your visa and stuff. You have to learn how to blow your own trumpet. And it’s excruciating! 

I would love to hear how that was for you – to learn that. And have you learned it yet? 

Well, I mean yeah, you have to learn how to do it. There’s always a side of you that feels slightly kind of embarrassed because we’re not used to bigging ourselves up. You know [for Brits] it’s all about self-depreciation, isn’t it? But it doesn’t serve you, it does not serve you here. 

And I always say that it wasn’t necessarily a culture shock in terms of just of being out and about and stuff but it was definitely a culture shock in terms of my work and business. And that’s a lot to do with the fact that I actually came to work in more client side when I first got here and I’d always been in creative agencies and working with other creatives that spoke my language.

But for sure, you have to be way more direct. You can’t do that sort of whole self-depreciating thing, it just doesn’t translate. We have this natural tendency to kind of, maybe, speak in terms that are gentle and flowery when we’re trying to communicate. We don’t want to offend anybody by something that we might say, so we’re trying to think around you know how to phrase things.

But what I’ve discovered personally — and what I saw another friend dealing with and then it made me really think, ‘Wow! This isn’t just me’ — is that, they think that we’re trying to hide something when we do that. 

That’s good insight! 

That is really good insight actually because we are doing it from a perspective of trying to help and be respectful but it’s seen as a bit divisive. 

So are you starting to see the benefits of being more direct in your communication, more American? 

Yeah, definitely. It’s those little intricacies and you know they say we speak the same language but we really don’t speak the same language. You have to learn how to speak American and there is a big difference. 

Do you think it’s more helpful in business? I mean if we’re doing business we shouldn’t have to worry about whether we’re offending the other party, it’s just about ‘Are we making a deal or not?’ 

I think there’s something to be said from having clarity and being truthful about what you want and how you feel. I guess all of that can be slightly cloudy when you’re coming from a culture that is a lot about being polite. 

And about subtlety.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I think there’s real beauty in subtlety. I think that kindness, being kind and being generous is everything, you know. I don’t like this whole idea of dropping truth-bombs and you know.. people can be very opinionated here and I don’t think it’s always necessarily the best way to go. 

It’s about finding that balance, isn’t it? 

The balance yeah.

Because you do want to encourage like our young people to have the confidence and the conviction in your opinions but also you don’t want it to be like completely unchangeable. 

Yeah, you’re right when you say about the confidence aspect. I mean, I was really shocked when I got here and I was working with people that were in their early 20s and they sounded like they were in the mid-40s and you get so shocked by that! It’s the opposite of how we’ve been raised and it really threw me. What I understood though, after a while, is that these people just sound very confident and they don’t actually know what they’re talking about. 

That’s a great point! Great observation. But that does still take you quite far. If you can use words and you can walk with authority and speak with authority, people will follow. And they’ve figured that out! 

It’s very interesting because my boyfriend is from South Korea and we’ve understood there’s a lot of similarities between British culture and Korean culture and so yeah we talk about this a lot actually because we’re both navigating all of this, coming from cultures that are really quite different. 

I’m learning Korean and I have to learn the new alphabet and all of that side of things.

Wow! That’s like the hardest language to learn as an English speaker. 

Korean isn’t the hardest of the Asian languages. I mean I won’t go into it too much now but I’m having to definitely kind of scramble my brain a little bit so to learn a new alphabet as well as the grammar. 

I tip my hat to you because I’ve been in Finland for 10 years and I have not progressed in my Finnish. 

How have you managed that? 

Oh man – the people who speak the best English in my life are Finns and I’m from the U.K. Most of the Finns that I know speak better English than most of the British that I know. 

Yeah I can completely understand if you are in a foreign country where they speak perfect English it’s not the same kind of immersion. Now I understand. 

I would love to hear a couple of funny stories from the [early days in America], when you first moved there, like, some some culture clashes anything that you remember that stood out. 

Uh.. let’s think. You know, sometimes it makes me feel feel like I’m really in Harry Potter or something when certain phrases come out of my mouth and then I’m just like, ‘Wow! We really do speak in kind of Ye Olde language!’ There’s just little phrases that come out.

I remember asking a designer that I was working with, he got off the phone and I said, ‘Did you have any joy?’ and he was like, [impersonating] ‘Did I have any joy?’ and I was like, ‘Oh god, that does sound really weird when you say it like that!’ [laughs].

That’s exactly what I mean! I remember once when I was there and somebody was telling me something and I responded with, ‘That’s shocking!’ and he’s like, [impersonating] ‘Shocking!’ And it’s only when they repeat it back to you with a smile and you’re like, ‘Oh my god!’ 

Yeah, a dear friend of mine here — her lineage is French, so she’s got a very European family — she always loves the way that that I say, ‘have a…’ so it would be, ‘have a dance …have a drink …have a laugh,’ like the way that we put, ‘…have a –’ instead of like, ‘Should we go dancing?’ we’d say, ‘Should we have a dance?’ And she just she loves it! She cracks up every time she hears it. 

Is there anything when you go to Manchester, any Americanisms slip out? 

Oh yeah but I’m kept in check by my brother. Again the minute that it sounds like I might be slipping he’ll just repeat it back to me in a really sarcastic way. One time I said, ‘right now’ instead of, ‘at the moment’ and he just was like, [American voice] ‘right now?’ and I was like, ‘Oh god!’ You know people laugh and they’ll say, ‘Wow, your accent hasn’t gone anywhere,’ and I’ll just be like, ‘Yeah that’s my brother.’ He just wouldn’t allow me to slip into transatlantic. 

➤ How often do you go to Manchester? 

(Conversation continues…)