Two Years Living in London and I Still Haven’t Mastered British Small Talks

“Hey there, how are you doing?” My hall mate asked as we passed by each other in the corridor. “Hey yeah I just…” My reply drifted away as he plugged in his earpiece and walked away through the double doors. It seems that “Hey how are you doing?” is just an extended version of “Hello.” I moved to London 25 months ago and back then I was not used to this kind of conversation at all. I would always try to respond with a well-thought answer like “I had a long practice session today, and I can’t take the stairs.” or something similar. But apparently that sort of stuff is saved for more-than-acquaintances or dinner tables.

You see, back home, a “hey” is often sufficient. Sometimes a “nod of acknowledgement of the person’s presence” does the trick as well. It is not that we don’t talk, but more towards the fact that if you’re not looking forward to a reply, don’t ask a question. It took me months to get over that initial frustration. But when in Rome, right?

I started doing the same after a few months here; I started asking people to whom I’m not close how they were doing and expected to be replied with a “great”, “amazing”, “I’m fine”, or a thousand other synonyms that does not really tell you anything. But still in my heart, I want to know how you are. Are you hurting and broken within? Are you worried about the competition you have next weekend? (I’ve seen your InstaStories) Are you excited about your year abroad? Perhaps this is not purely based on my upbringing but also my personal Love Language. Mine is no doubt Quality Time. If you’ve known me for a while, I hate texting. I’d call or meet up, even if it takes me 30 minutes to get to your place.

But I’ve also learnt something important through this small talk culture. Empathy. Because I am subconsciously expecting a thoughtful answer, I would arguably pay more attention to the person’s face and expression when they reply. And over time, I’ve learnt to see the stuff behind the smile; anger, stress, pure joy. I learnt to take it slowly in conversations, also because now I am having many more now and cannot be emotionally committed to all of them. In this article about the American small talk culture, Karan Mahajan quoted a book “The Inscrutable American” by Anurag Mathur.

In the opening of the book, the scion of a hair-oil empire, Gopal, comes to the U.S. for college. When an immigration agent at J.F.K. asks, “How is it going?” Gopal replies the only way he knows:

I am telling him fully and frankly about all problems and hopes, even though you may feel that as American he may be too selfish to bother about decline in price of hair oil in Jajau town. But, brother, he is listening very quietly with eyes on me for ten minutes and then we are having friendly talk about nuts and he is wanting me to go.

Yes I just quoted someone quoting something. I did attend that class on plagiarism, I think.

I love conversing, and every time I reply someone with a “good”, “not bad”, or “not too bad” followed by a period and us walking away from each other, it kills me a little inside.

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