It may be a whimsical observation but “small talk” on this island is changing. I come to write this after a whole series of pre-Christmas conservations with strangers. No, I’m not walking the streets talking at anyone and everyone at random. It’s the day-to-day chit chat had standing in a queue or across a counter or waiting for a train. There’s one subject hovering like the ghost of Christmas-past.
It’s a bit like that famous: “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?” British recruitment poster from 1915. That poster has a sobering story when considering that half a million children lost their fathers in WW1. Early on it aimed to get men to happily sign-up and march off to war.
In a light-hearted way I say: “Sir/Madam, what did YOU do in the great Brexit debate?” Even if I would never dream of asking a stranger that question outright, it is in that back of my mind. From the reaction of people, it’s obvious to me that the question is in the mind of others too. The question is starting to condition the way we interact in everyday situations.
There I was in a railway coffee shop, sitting next to a radiator and feeling chilly. One of the lads clearing tables remarked that the heating was out over the entire station. They were trying to fix it, but we’d probably got the best spot to sit out of the wind. Guy sitting next to me, reading the Telegraph, grinned and we struck up a conversation. That was the moment when I wondered. I couldn’t help it. It was clear he was reading the latest Brexit story in the newspaper. He was early retirement age. He was well dressed. Did I dare make a comment about how ridiculous the Brexit debate had become?
The New British Etiquette that I’m suggesting exists, is a new sense that helps people quickly assess if small talk is going to be well received and pleasant or turn into an awkward moment or worse.
The upshot of the railway station story was we both agreed that Brexit had become ridiculous. When he was working fulltime, he’d been a regular commuter. Now, he was grateful not having to do the daily run into London. The conversation warmed.
Next occasion I had to test the new sense of etiquette was in a supermarket queue. Pre-Christmas, and at the wrong time, Sainsburys looked like a scene from a zombie apocalypse movie. Full baskets and tired shoppers meant standing in-line, straining the patience and slowly moving towards the till.
Looking at the chaos and confusion all around the woman next in-line chatted. We agreed that we had both underestimated how busy the place was going to be at lunchtime. Then she said a: “I don’t like to mention the B-word but”. Knockout, I thought now people are testing the water before even mentioning that subject of Brexit.
She’s right. What could be worse than being stuck in a queue with someone you have taken an instant dislike too? It was well worth a couple of words to see if I was friendly or hostile. We both agreed Brexit is crazy.
Up and down this great land there must be thousands of little conversations like these two. Carefully and tentatively the topic that is as turbulent as religion or tricky as sex, can only be approached after a simple quiz. That’s the New British Etiquette.