A very English conversation

If you live in a big city like London, you rarely even talk to your neighbours, let alone strangers in the street. This wasn’t always the case. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of my Mum chatting away to other ladies on a bus. Sometimes, the conductor would join in the conversation, and pretty soon people further away would be twisting around in their seats, hoping to get a word in too. Shopping took forever, as Mum would chat about the same stuff to every shopkeeper, as well as to all the other customers in the shop. I would stand pulling at her sleeve, wondering what the hell they were all going on about.

Some time later, this all changed. And I never really understood why.

By the time I was in my thirties, approaching strangers was considered to be weird. You might get someone at a bus stop ask you, “Have I missed a 29?” But that would be about it. If someone saw you smoking, they might cautiously approach you for a light. Once the cigarette was lit, they walked away. If you needed to ask for directions, then you would generally seek out someone in uniform, like a policeman, or lollipop lady. But never a stranger, and definitely not a woman on her own. I once spent many hours on a long train journey, seated opposite an attractive woman of about the same age as me. We didn’t exchange a word throughout the whole trip. On arrival at a busy London terminus, I decided to do the decent thing, and offered to take her heavy case down from the rack. She looked surprised when I spoke, and curtly replied, “I put it up there, I can get it down.”

Many years later, I was descending a long flight of steps into an underground station. On the opposite side, I spotted a harassed young mum, struggling with a buggy. She was bouncing it and the baby it contained backwards up the steps, trying to keep a hold on her handbag and numerous shopping bags as she did so. I ducked under the rail separating us and grasped the footplate of the buggy, attempting to help her lift it up the steps. She looked alarmed. “Leave me alone please, and take your hands off my pram.” Her voice was raised as she spoke, and people around looked at me as if I was a criminal. I put the buggy back on the step, and returned to my journey.

I had well and truly learned my lesson about modern city life. After that, I spoke to nobody, avoided eye contact, and never once offered to help anyone again.

Then four years ago, I moved here to Norfolk. People started saying hello. Neighbours walked around the front and introduced themselves. Walking along the local High Street in Dereham, everyone nodded, or actually said “Good Morning” as I passed. Staff in shops engaged me in conversation, and even teenagers smiled as they went by. I was perplexed, and unsure what to do. Fifty-odd years of minding my own business was not easy to overturn. Then I got a dog, and it went up a gear. Dog-walkers talk. They don’t just bid you good day, they walk around with you for some time too. They talk about your dog, their dog, other dogs, and things like house prices, and where they used to work, or live. But then you keep meeting the same people. You find out their names, or at least their dog’s name. You begin to refer to people by doggy nicknames. Things like ‘Jenny two-dogs’, or ‘Mrs curly-haired Jack Russell.’ Very soon, it becomes all too apparent that you are running out of things to say. There’s always something fascinating like “I had my car serviced this morning”, or a search for tips on tradesmen, as in “Who services your boiler?”

One thing remains constant though. If in doubt, when all other conversational gambits have been exhausted, you can never go wrong with the weather. No matter how many times you encounter someone in the same week, you can rely on the weather to give you something to talk about. We English are experts at this, it’s in our genes. Never taught, never studied, we just grow up knowing how to talk about anything meteorological. Even something as mundane as rain has limitless options. “It’s raining much harder than yesterday.” “I think it will rain later.” “This rain might stop before dark.” All reliable standbys, and considered to be perfectly acceptable too. The recent heatwave has opened up some rarely heard opportunities for conversational gems of course.

I passed a lady today, on the path by the river. I don’t know her well, but have seen her occasionally, with her small terrier. We once spoke briefly about the mud, and the flooded path. Today, she looked at me, blew out her cheeks, and said “Too hot for me today.” I smiled, then replied “At least anything is better than rain.” Then we continued on our way.

That was a very English conversation, believe me.

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35 thoughts on “A very English conversation

  1. Great post Pete. 🙂 Here in Brisbane, strangers still talk a bit and I may offer to help someone but with technology and age we’re going inwards a bit. It doesn’t help when you offer someone help and they react the way that poor woman did. I wonder, when I worked years ago as a wardie in a hospital you would often nod or say hello to everyone. I wonder if that still happens and why it came naturally then?

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    1. It seems to depend a lot on the area and location. Working closely with staff and patients in hospitals, (as I did myself for many years) you have a mutual affinity that is not shared with strangers outside that environment.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I refuse not to speak to people. If something makes me laugh, catches my eye or deserves comment; even if it is ignored I will comment. But maybe thats because I’d talk to anyone as a kid. I’d happily talk to tramps from Arlington house. Not the modern street drinkers but the smelly old big beard tramps.

    I still also offer people my seat and I still help people with buggies. If anyone gets snotty, thats their loss not mine.

    Anyhow, it has been bloody hot. Especially on the tube.

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  3. Haha SO TRUE!!! I talk about the weather with acquaintances, work colleagues etc more than anything else (even food!). Being British I can totally appreciate that 🙂

    London does seem quite unfriendly sometimes and there does seem a certain etiquette of not catching anyone’s eye. We’re pretty friendly in Essex I’m happy to report. Especially in the mornings! If ever people say hello (or comment on the weather!) it seems to be in the morning.

    Great write up as ever xxx

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    1. Thanks, Em. I’ve met some pretty unfriendly people in Ilford, and that was before it was in a London borough too. You had to be very careful whose girlfriend you spoke to in The Room At The Top! Glad to hear that they are more cheerful now. Then again, you do live in a ‘nice part’… XXX

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lets be honest, some areas of Essex close to London can be a bit hit and miss. I was in Romford last year and almost ended up in a brawl at the train station, no joke! I’ve never been to Ilford I don’t think. Thankfully I do live in rural Essex 🙂 xxx

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  4. This made me smile Pete, so true and so very English! I really noticed a difference moving out from London to Reading even though it’s like suburb of London and 25 mins away on fast train, I was relieved to find people actually queued for buses and occasionally said morning!
    Hope all good with you all, warm isn’t it! 😉

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    1. Nice to hear from you, Helen. Not as hot as earlier in the week, so I can finally get some jobs done! Glad you liked the post, and trust all is fine with you and the family.
      As always, Pete. xx

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  5. In the city, you can live next door to folks for years and never get beyond the occasional wave of the hand. Your stories of being rebuffed when trying to be of help are perfect illustrations of how things have changed in the big city. Not just in England, but in America as well. I’ve been known to engage strangers in conversation, and at times have been surprised at how welcome that was, but it’s usually in a circumstance that is confining, like the line at the grocery store. It seems that people have become adept at social media, and yet are hesitant or simply fear engaging people out in the real world. To a large extent, we’ve become real world islands, only comfortable with social engagement when it’s conducted from behind a computer screen. It’s very sad. Of course, in small towns, this is not the case. As in England, Americans tend to be more outgoing in rural communities. People do get out for walks, they do engage neighbors and strangers, and they do see life from a different and healthier angle. This was a wonderful post. Very much appreciated.

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    1. Thanks, David. From the comments it would seem that it is the same all over. Only outside of most big cities do the traditional habits of conversation and manners live on. However, Sue tells us that she experiences the same thing in central London, so perhaps I was just unlucky?
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  6. i live in the suburbs and people are generally friendly, polite and oftentimes helpful. the city is a different story – people are into themselves mostly engaged with their phones even while walking which is sad. great post, as always, Pete! 🙂

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  7. Now that is one thing I do miss living here, the chats I used to have with the market traders and the shopkeepers in Ludlow, always a smile and often in the butchers, a song! People are generally friendly down here though, when I come across any 🙂

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  8. Pete, what a great post you have here. I too first thing in the morning check out the weather network to see what the day is going to be like… Folks use to chat when standing in lines for the bank or grocery stores, but that has gone by the way side for a decade or so when the cell phone carrying people keep their heads buried in what’s on the tiny screens, instead of looking up and noticing someone is talking to them.. The little bit of chit chat that use to happen is now only a memory.. Yesterday I had a Dr. appointment to have a few things filled and there are signs posted in the office to alert us not to talk with the Dr. about anything other than what he may be filling…

    I went along with this as my family doctor retired, both of them.. one after the other.. I use the clinic now and find this sad… I decided to go against the signs posted and told a brief story about getting cholesterol check back from my now retired doctor, and his surprise given my age that it was perfect.. He looked at his computer screen and then back at me saying, “It’s perfect?” with a question in his tone… then he returned looking at the screen once more and back at me, with a confused look saying all of the tests were fine…

    I told him, “Isn’t that a good thing?”…..

    This clinic doctor actually laughed and looked at me square in the eyes.. As this was a first for either of these things… It’s sad how our health care here has become a strategy of putting the most relevant people first. I suppose if I went in with blood gushing from my forehead he would have looked at me as a person, instead of just X amount of dollars per visit.. I had to go in for two separate appointments just to get 2 prescriptions filled… He gets two office visits $$$… hum…Any who it’s going to be another bloody hot week for us here ~ close to 40 or over…. oh my … where’s the ice pack ?

    Take care, Laura

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    1. Doctors always stare at screens as you talk to them these days. It’s a rarity to find one who actually engages you in conversation. Then again, we don’t have to pay over here.
      I hope that you are managing to stay cool. I slept very little last night, as it was close to 24 degrees even after dark.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Pete, we too have the universal health care system.. So, we don’t pay for the office visits either… the temps are rising and tomorrow is suppose to be close or over 40…oh my I thought I let Florida’s heat and humidity behind years ago,.. Oh well I have plenty of ice cubes and a spray bottle filled with cold water .. spritz, spritz, spritz…

        Take care, Laura

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  9. Well, I’m going to have to disappoint you, Pete…I do actually have conversations with people on the Tube now and again, and quite often on the train into and out of London….but I’ve always been the gregarious type. If I struggle with baggage in London, strangers often offer to help…

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  10. You got this bang on Pete, in fact such is the reputation for the Englishman’s weather obsession that I am often asked about it (by Poles). Of course I keep myself well informed via various websites, just to make sure I have an accurate assessment at the ready no matter the time of day, I even throw in the occasional bit of weather trivia based on historical data…”yesterday was the hottest June the 3rd since 1990″
    The Polish on the other hand are obsessed by their health and if you haven’t got anything wrong with you then to be honest the conversation is dead in the water.
    Thankfully my offers to carry luggage and lift prams in the past and to this day are always returned with a thank you, but then I have never lived in what would be called a big city, thank goodness.
    All the best from a wet Poland, but beware, the sun returns here tomorrow so no doubt you are due a downpour.

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  11. I’m so sorry your gallant efforts were rebuked. What a pity. I have noticed lately that people generally under 35 have earphones in to prohibit any chance discourse. On planes, I won’t talk unless the person next to me begins the chat. It seems very weird to be rubbing shoulders with a stranger and not a word is spoken for hours. Elevators. No one ever talks in an elevator.
    Good ol’ weather. Cheers, Pete.

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    1. Oh long aircraft journeys can be the worst. Once you start the conversation, it never seems to end!
      Lifts (elevators in your language) are sacrosanct from conversation, unless you are with colleagues or friends.
      Thanks, Cindy. Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

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