With all of this Brexit-business still going on, I’ve been thinking about what makes us British. I think one of the things that makes someone truly British is the way we make small-talk with strangers. And what do we talk about? Yes – the weather. I’m not shy about greeting people I pass on the street. I think a cheery “Good morning” can help anyone’s day get off to a good start. It never fails to amuse me that the one thing that follows (if anything is required) is a comment about the weather.
Middle of winter – “Cold this morning, isn’t it?” Late spring – “Beautiful day!” Middle of summer 2018 – “Isn’t it warm?” Apart from the last, these are things we would surely be expecting. British winters have cold days, however mild parts of them may be. We often have the promise of a summer filled with gloriously blue skies in late May, and are often disappointed. Not last summer, though!
My children are astonished by this. “Mummy, do you know that man?” “No,” I respond, and we have a discussion on when it is or is not appropriate to talk to strangers. The famous British reserve comes into play so that we don’t overstep an invisible boundary. The fact that I can happily exchange a few sentences with someone I am unlikely to see again, yet feel tongue tied in other social situations, has not escaped my children’s notice.
What is really going on when we make small talk? It is all about making contact with someone. The British don’t like to give away too many personal details too quickly. We often prefer to keep people at arm’s length until we have worked out various things about them. People of various other nationalities are happier to give away a little more about themselves, and I can imagine that the “coolness” of British small talk may be strange to them. Even with people we have known for a long time, we tend to start our interactions with small talk before getting into a full conversation.
Closing a conversation
While I’m happy to share a sentence or two with a stranger, I know it doesn’t come as easily to everyone. We’ve all been there – the party we didn’t want to attend. We only know the host, and get stuck next to one of their old school friends. I remember one challenging interaction where, after a few attempts, the acquaintance and I still had no topics of conversation in common. I knew it was going to be a LOOOONG evening.
One anxiety that people sometimes have is that they will get trapped, or are unable to finish the conversation. They avoid starting conversations in the first place in case this occurs. Having an expression or two ready can help. You could try saying, “It’s been lovely talking to you. I’ve got to go now.” If you are at a social event, “It’s been interesting hearing about (…). I hope you enjoy the rest of your evening” can help to bring the discussion to a close.
I got “trapped” at the library this morning. While I was picking out some books for my daughter, and one of the volunteers was regaling me with her fascination for children’s literature. I am afraid I lost the ability to close down our chat, and had to bury my head in pre-teen novels before making my escape.
Drop the British reserve!
When we share a quick conversation, it can make a real difference to a person’s day. If we can overcome worries about how to respond, and how to leave the conversation, we can show someone that they are interesting and important enough to be listened to. It needn’t be us who start the interaction. We can be prepared to answer and engage, even if it is only for a few sentences. Something to remember is that this person may not speak to anyone else for the whole day. Smiling and chatting briefly with them can add enormous value to their sense of self-worth.
Why not give it a go? You never know, you might find yourself happier by having improved someone else’s day.
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