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Meditation on Transatlantic Conversation

You’ve been invited to a dinner party. Shock horror; you’ve actually got to speak to somebody. Simply waving and pretending not to hear Erica-across-the-dancefloor’s efforts at conversation isn’t an option. This isn’t the Union and this isn’t Freshers Week. Socialising has evolved. You have matured. There are chairs involved now.

Picture this nightmare; James, whom you haven’t seen in a month (he’s not in your Arabic tutorial this semester) has invited you over. You can’t decline. You’ve already played the deadlines card, and he’s specifically organised this little ‘get-together’ around your timetable. Could it be Covid? Sadly not; he’d want you even more, given his hope for an actual reason to have his deadlines extended. What is there to do? You’ve got to go.

Fast-forward a couple of hours, because — just as usual — you’re not deciding whether you want to go when you were first invited. No, you’re deciding whether you want to go that evening, when you’re supposed to be there. #Organised. Anyway, you put on the one top that so far has escaped wine stains.

You make it to James’s. Lovely place he’s got, wonderful lighting though it does lack space. You’re swedged in between two hefty creatures, each less than 10cm away, you’re so close you can feel the sweat as it leaves their pores. However, you’re here now, unwillingly cocooned on James’s swivel chair. You can’t leave. You can’t even swivel. Oh, to be swept away in a faceless crowd.

Yet your problems don’t end with the physical. You immediately hear another problem… Brits. You know what that means… British conversation. It looks like your good ol’ wham-slam-bam fast-paced speak-or-be-ignored American conversational habits will have to be left (politely) at the door. You scan the room, analysing your fellow diners’ genial repressed smiles. Who will it be? Who will hold court? Who will take upon themselves to direct this evening’s badinage.

You sigh wearily, it will have to be James. There’s a reason he’s hosting. Unfortunately, fascinating though he is, he’s not quite as fascinating as he believes himself to be. On the upside, at least he doesn’t suffer from self-confidence issues. Good for him.

You set yourself. Question time. You’ve come to discover that people over here, even ones like James, won’t start monologuing without some form of invitation. Of course, silence, awkward or otherwise, could be construed as an invitation. You decide to get it over with. That way at least you get some control over James’s verbal diarrhoea.

“So James, how’s your girlfriend? Do you feel that you know her completely after six months?”

A solid question. Too solid in fact. James is taken aback. He wasn’t expecting this. He thought he’d get a nice bland opener. A “how was your weekend” or a “how’re the deadlines treating you”, perhaps. You, however, have grasped James by the proverbial jugular. Small talk is for the weak and you are certainly not weak. You are American.

Alas, James is not overly dismayed. After all, he’s dealt with Americans before. You won a battle, but the war’s outcome is still uncertain. He decides to hit back hard. He reverts to a classic tactic: long words.

“Meeting her was a true stroke of serendipity. Each day I think we’ve reached our absolute apogee, but then the next day dawns”.

What the hell? What is this boy saying? Which drugs is he on and, moreover, where can you get them? These are strong! In fact, James has really brought out the big guns — not only has he used two enormous words, but he’s talked about his emotions without downplaying them. Truly unexpected. Sadly though, James hasn’t gone full American, Britons tend only to practice emotional monologuing at crises and James, it would appear, is not in a crisis.

You however, don’t suffer from this British restraint rubbish. Why this culture prizes modesty and poor-storytelling is a mystery to you. You want to hear the good stuff, and you want to hear it now. Maybe James and his lackeys will themselves become more intriguing once they have heard how interesting you are.

Emotional monologuing is your thang and besides, even if James doesn’t like it, it’s free therapy and you love therapy.

Having powered through the rest of the evening by anecdote and gentle boast, you finally feel quite relieved. There remains but one hurdle: the goodbye. On the frontier of James’ door, you turn to thank him. Liberty is a mere foot away. As warm and tactile as ever, you reach in for a hug. Tragedy strikes. You lurch into James’ outstretched, austere hand, as it searches for the barebones salutation of a handshake. You remember that an inevitable constant of transatlantic communication is mutual misunderstanding.

Illustration: Calum Mayor

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