I was rushing to the bus stop at noon when I almost tripped on some electrical wires left by the construction site on Bank street. A guy walking behind me saw me stumbling and (elegantly) catching myself just in time.
“Drunk, already?”, he said with a big grin on his face.
“Nah, just blinded by the sun, I’m not used to see it much these days!”, I replied.
He looked at me, still smiling: “I love your accent.” He eventually walked past me and waved. “Have a great day!”
The exchange lasted about ten seconds. Usual Canadian chitchat, I guess.
When I first came to Canada, my English wasn’t good at all. I hated talking to people, especially strangers. I’d go to the stores and try to keep the conversation to a minimum.
I soon realized I just couldn’t do that. No matter how hurried I tried to look, or how clueless I may have seemed, people would always talk to me. Canadians love small talk.
Go to any store, you will be greeted by the usual “how are you doing today”. Climb on the bus, frozen after waiting in the cold for twenty minutes, chances are the driver will stare at you from head to toe (or rather, from hat to snow boots) and say: “pretty cold, eh?”. He will then move on to telling stories of “the colder winter ever survived”, “the most snow ever shoveled”, “the longer it took to start the car one morning” etc. Same scene in the summer would bring a comment on either the downpours, the humidex or the drought.
Canadians love small talk, and they are quite good at it. I’m still occasionally surprised when I see a mismatched pair of strangers discussing life’s little events and parting ways a few seconds later. Yesterday, I was waiting for the bus when I overheard an old immaculately dressed gentleman and a young guy sporting a purple mohawk, a spiked dog collar and a couple of crude tattoos, arguing about hockey. “You should have seen them fight just a few decades ago”, boasted the gentleman, “they were really putting their heart into it”. “Must have been kinda cool to see that”, sighed the kid. A few second later, the gentleman climbed on one bus, the kid on another and that was it.
I only realized that I had been contaminated by the small talk virus two years ago, when I went back to France. Barely awake from the long flight and still on Canada mode, I queued (way too politely) to buy subway tickets in Montparnasse. After 30 minutes, I found myself in front of the glass window, smiling at the already exhausted employee: “Hi, how are you? Pretty busy this morning, isn’t it?”. The employee stared at me and for a second, I thought I had spoken in English (don’t laugh, it happens!). “What do you want?”, she barked. Ooops. I forgot, French don’t do small talks. “Ten tickets”, I continued in my best businesswoman voice, already preparing the change.
It’s not that French don’t talk to each other, though. They are colder and more neutral to strangers, except in some contexts: complaining, for instance. Put a bunch of strangers together and here comes authority, you will see them building up friendship.
Last time I went to France, I rode the tramway with my mother. None of us had a valid ticket (this is for another post, but for the record, French love going against the rules…). The tramway was packed and people wore their usual “don’t even speak to me” mask. Suddenly, as we were approaching a station, someone yelled: “les contrôleurs!” As soon as the tramway stopped, we all rushed to exit before the fare police could go in. They were only two, we were roughly fifty guilty passengers — they didn’t even have a chance. The tramway left and we all stood on the platform to wait for another one. As if by magic, people started chatting. “I can’t believe how expensive tickets are”, said an old woman indignantly to a teen. “I know, I never buy any”, he shrugged. “Somebody should do something”, chipped in a third passenger. “And it’s not just the tickets, life is so expensive these days!”, added another one. By the time the next tramway had finally arrived, all passengers had agreed that a good revolution would solve most problems and that the current government really wasn’t good.
Chinese chitchat is another form of cultural chatting I noticed: it’s all about stating the obvious. In Hong Kong, at lunch time, I would often go for a walk. Upon returning, my boss would invariably greet by saying: “回来了!” (you’re back, eh!). At first, I thought I had taken longer than expected. But no, people would always say that, no matter how long I was gone for.
Walk around in the street as a foreign and people will walk pass you, nodding to each other and pointing: “老外” (eh, foreigner!). Buying clothes in a shop would usually bring comments such as “很高啊” (very tall). Eating a street meal would cause passerby to say “吃饭啊” (eating, eh!). And on top of that, people echo each other: “下雨了” (it’s raining), said one guy sheltered under the doorway during one of these Nanjing’s typhoon rain. “下雨了” (it’s raining) confirmed the second person. Standing by these two guys, I had wondered for a few seconds if I was supposed to repeat the same exact obvious sentence just to fit in.
Chatting is cultural, I guess.