Mid-20s Malaise

Struggling against the inevitable since 1986!


I was making a cup of tea in the office kitchen yesterday, when one of my various superiors wandered in. She set about making a cup of tea, and asked, “How are you, Liam?”

(This has always impressed me about her: she was introduced to me just once, at a very busy day of team building exercises during my first week with the company, and she’s never forgotten my name. It’s a skill that I, as someone who can put names to faces as well as he can build a bridge to New Zealand, can only dream of.)

I told her I was good, but tired. She made some comment about it being a Monday, and I sympathised, but pointed out that the day was over. Neither of us asked the other what we did over the weekend, what we were working on, or anything else specific.

It was quite impersonal.

And it was great.

See, I love small talk, but I didn’t realise how much until I went travelling. Having worked in hospitality and retail, I’ve tired many times of saying “Hi, how are you?” (although during busy periods, this turns into “Hihowareyou” or simply “Hhhhhhhhhhh”). But I like being on the receiving end: chats about the weather, asking if the other’s day has been busy, finding out if they’re working an early or late shift. That said, I totally understand people who dismiss it as meaningless prattle (but have no tolerance for those who are aggressive or rude to some poor underpaid teenager who is only trying to be polite as part of their job).

When travelling, I could go several days as a functional mute. Communication often became a series of mimes, or an insulting approximation of the local dialect. And it wasn’t just the language barrier: I thought that the sneers delivered to me by Dutch checkout chicks were mine alone, but they were just as dismissive of my Dutch friend’s banter. Getting to England was no better, where the checkout chicks won’t smile, let alone have a chat with you.

The first morning I woke up in Australia, I went down to the bank. I realised I’d forgotten my PIN during my year away, and went inside to rectify the situation. The woman was stupendously friendly: asked how she could help me and, when I explained the problem, she asked me where I’d been and how it was. I was ready to smother her in kisses, having braved the indifference of the staff of Morrison’s at Shepherd’s Bush just days earlier.

And so, no matter how often I miss Europe, small talk reminds me that, no matter what other problems my country has, it’s a friendly place full of friendly people, where someone will smile at me for simply buying a bottle of milk.


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5 Responses

  1. I love smalltalk too. I had no idea that people were so much friendlier there than in the UK.

    I generally find people quite friendly in London (unless you’re on public transport) but maybe it’s just because I’m used to a pretty poor standard from Copenhagen, where staff in cafés & shops often can’t be bothered to say hi, smile, let alone serve you.

    And where the checkout chicks in Fakta & Netto greet you with a contemptuous look, that is if they can be bothered with eye contact at all… But if you travel to the smaller cities in DK, like my hometown Hjørring, people are so much friendlier, and boy can they smalltalk there!

    Australia sounds lovely, now I wanna visit even more :-)

    • Liam says:

      People in London are okay: they’re always polite and helpful, so I have no complaints. Australians tend to be a bit more informal and up for a chat: shop assistants often ask what you’re up to, where you work, although they drop it if you obviously aren’t chatty back. I think many Europeans find those kind of questions intrusive in that setting.

      And Australia *is* lovely. A great place to raise kids, too… ;)

  2. Frances says:

    When Pauline was over here, she, Warren and Adia came to visit me at work. While waiting for me in the foyer, my building’s security guard started chatting to them and fussing over Adia. A few days after that, we had this conversation:

    Me – My security guard liked Adia.
    Pauline – Had you even spoken to him before then?
    Me – Yeah, of course. He’s from Yugoslavia, he likes long-distance running and he’s got two sons.
    Pauline – I forgot that Australians talk to each other.

    • Liam says:

      That’s amazing! I totally understand, though: it took me a while to get back into it after just a year away. “how…how am I? you really want to know?” *bursts into tears of joy*

  3. Iason says:

    Milk in bottles?!

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