Thursday, June 14, 2012

Reverse Culture Shock: casual conversation about more than just the weather

Bumped and updated from original post in October 2011.  

According to Kate Fox and my personal experience the only universal opener for casual conversation with strangers in London is a comment, usually disparaging, on the weather.  (Compliments to dogs also work well, but not everyone has dogs.)  
The States are not so limited, especially in the friendly South and West.  
The acceptability of discussion openers is mainly determined by location, such as a grocery store  aisle or locker room.  The list of acceptable conversation openers is long and varied.  It includes, but is not limited to: weather, complimentary personal appearance, consumer product reviews, politics, pets, children, schools, diary (calendar) load, present customer service, plastic surgery, religion, doctor recommendations, any current news story, travel….
That much I remembered.  I had forgotten, however, about joining conversations.
If Americans are speaking loudly enough for you to hear--a common occurrence as we have little fear of being overheard--then it is acceptable to interject. 
For instance, in a kitchenware store I had a lovely conversation about the superiority of European yogurt with two women.  One had spent time in Holland recently and was looking for a yogurt maker so she could avoid the abominations that are flavored Dannon and Yoplait.  (Greek yogurt is the best option, though we don't always want such rich yogurt.  I use plain with a dollop of jam, or mooch from Persephone, who makes her own.)  

Another day, I overheard two women in the next aisle in the locker room discussing their doctor's handiwork. I was a bit shocked to realize that, had I been inclined to plastic surgery, it would not have been a faux pas to poke my head around and ask for their doctor's name and number.   I was even more surprised when a few minutes later the women introduced themselves to each other.  They weren’t old friends.  
Sometimes in close quarters, like a lift, it is even polite to pull others into conversation.   I worry I'm coming off as cold sometimes for lack of interaction with strangers.  I have to remind myself to interact. 
Casual conversations with strangers are rare in London. Even when you know someone, conversation in public is not as free flowing.  I certainly would not have heard such conversations in my London gym locker room.  Those women usually spoke in hushed tones or in code into their mobile phones.  Occasionally speaking would occur, but over some detail of the health club, or perhaps someone would ask for another to pass them a towel off the shelf.   

UPDATE: I'm revisiting this post in June 2012 because of a post by Lynneguist and my own whiplash culture shock.  A few days ago, I had coffee with SarahB from Texpats Abroad. She's been here a year.  A few weeks ago when there was sun, she was struck by the sounds of laughter when walking down the street.  Hearing the laughter made her realize that it is usually missing.  After leaving our coffee and heading home in the Tube, I realized that it's not just the laughter.  Conversationally, public spaces are silent.  In public spaces at home, one is always walking through bits of other conversations.  Here, people rarely talk to strangers. If your ear is trained to the US chitchat, which mine is after a year back home, the relative silence is almost eerie. 
All of this got me thinking about something that has bugged me for awhile: the conventional wisdom that Brits tend to prudishness and Americans tend to over-sharing.  But how does that square with the American reputation for prudishness when it comes to public lives or entertainment? 

In most things besides casual conversation, Americans are the uptight prudes. Everyone knows that Brits and Europeans are much more open about things like sex and nudity, right?  Examples abound. I doubt I would ever see an advert like this anywhere in the States outside of perhaps San Francisco.  

My friend Lois Lane snapped that jewel on the Tube.  And someone please tell me if the New York Times has ever run an article about the shag-ability of children’s cartoon characters, complete with the F-bomb in the title ("shag" is comparable to our f-bomb).  Then there is the non-anon writer telling the world that she wants her husband to get her a night with a young man for her 50th birthday.  (I can't find the link.  I think it was in The Telegraph about a year ago.)
Kate Fox has the print media rule about saying private things in print.  One can announce on broadcast to the world what one wouldn't discuss at a dinner party of friends. This seems backward to me.  It also makes me wonder if Americans get pilloried by world opinion for the opposite simply because it is the way Americans do things, not because it doesn't make sense.  

1 comment:

edgeofthesandbox said...

I have to admit, I lived here more than 20 years, and I still don't do well with California nice. I'm OK with strangers pulling me in a conversation in the elevator, but I can't do it myself. Even when another person initiates the conversation I'm unsure if I'm participating in it correctly. Am I too friendly? Do I talk too much? Do they expect me to be more forthcoming? I never know.