Social Niceties and Necessities


I don’t really do small talk. I mean by that inconsequential chat. I’m just really bad at it, mainly because I take everything anyone says terribly seriously. And yes, it means I often don’t ‘get’ jokes, even though I like to think I have a sense of humour deep down somewhere.

Just because I’m useless at small talk doesn’t mean I am completely socially incapacitated. I can even have great exchanges on short bus journeys with complete strangers as long as my interlocutor seems to mean what they’re saying.

But my main problem is with the common courtesies of modern life. The polite little exchanges, which others seem so comfortable with, require serious committed effort on my part. At a conscious level, I understand these niceties make the world go round for most people, and so I try and make a real effort to understand why people are asking even when we are each disappearing through a door and thus unlikely to be able to reply at any serious level.

I can remember feeling very disconcerted and uncomfortable on my first visits to the US years ago, and being enthusiastically greeted by shop assistants on entering a shop with a cry of “How are you?”. I just didn’t know how to reply. It sounded so sincerely meant, but clearly they couldn’t really expect me to give a proper answer. but my grunted mumbled “Fine, thanks” seemed barely adequate recompense for such conviviality.

But I fear over the years I have on far too many occasions taken the polite “How are you?” for a serious and meaningful enquiry.

Which led me to feel unreasonably guilty on reading an article in the Sunday Times last weekend by India Knight on the awfulness of people who take such politesses far too seriously. I understand entirely how tedious it must be for those who have such social niceties down to a fine art to be subjected to a detailed résumé of the neighbour’s health issues, but I felt she was a little harsh on those of us with a more literal approach to daily conversation.

What about a bit of sympathy for those who love to just get straight into the meaning of life with everyone they meet?

At least if I do ask someone how they are, it’s probably because I genuinely want to know.


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