Over dinner, a friend who knows I’m going to South Carolina, compared me to a Southern Belle. Not sure what this meant, I guessed he was referring to my tendency to be “slightly evil,” that is to say, not bland. Canadians are known for blandness in conversation. As a child I was taught to avoid the ‘big three’ contentious topics: religion, money, politics. I was told it was not polite to stir up controversy at a social gathering.
The same friend, who had recently visited New York, was impressed by the way he saw Americans hold passionate views, express them, debate them and yet, despite disagreeing violently with each other, still remain friends. I don’t know if I could do that. If I’m ‘slightly evil,’ for voicing my opinion and sometimes making a snarky remark, I still ‘bite my tongue’ enough to grow a callus there.
I have to admit, too much of what I know about American culture comes from TV and movies — and Canadian editorialists who try to define what is Canadian in terms of what is not American. That’s no way to define ourselves as a people. It’s also no way to understand your neighbours. I’m really looking forward to meeting some ‘real Americans’ on my trip. This should be easy if Americans live up to their reputations for being good talkers.
The English, too, are great conversationalists, playing with words in a way I wish Canadians would do more often. I go to a Monday night social where punsters must pay into a “pun jar” for each unwanted quip. The English, to their credit, know that speaking is an art, practiced to give pleasure to one’s friends. “She has no conversation,” is an old-fashioned English expression but I believe the sentiment still holds. We all have an obligation to support the conversation in a room by listening and making interesting contributions. To do otherwise is to be a bore.
Then there are the French. What I know of French culture is specific, regional and based on two very specific times of my life: high school and university. Let’s talk about high school. In grade 4 French class, Anglophone Canadians learn to greet a friend with: “Comment ça va?” [How’s it going?] In grade twelve, when I arrived in France for a month-long exchange, I discovered the girls in Bayonne were just as likely to ask: “Qu’est-ce que tu racontes?” [What (story) do you have to tell?] This friendly greeting invites you to take the floor and share an experience. When you realize that it will happen every day, you start to think about what you’re going to say.
I like this idea of gathering anecdotes in order to tell them. As a teen, I was aware of the French girls, imitating people we knew and experimenting with techniques so that their stories would impress or raise a giggle.
People tell tales in every culture, of course. Every family or group has it’s favorite stories and in-jokes. At the kind of parties I attend, you have to wait for the best stories, until some drinks have gone down and people have gravitated to the kitchen. That’s when the ‘war’ stories come out and we laugh and “remember when.”
English people have remarked to me on how often Canadians mention the weather. In Toronto, conditions change frequently but there’s another reason. Until recently, aquaintances would avoid talking about the big three: religion, politics and money. In some circles they are still taboo subjects, although in the post 911, globally warming, mega corporate world, I’m constantly reading about them. I just don’t verbally drub others with my opinions, especially when I think we won’t agree.
When I was a small child, a stranger in the street asked my mother the price of our house. She did tell him, once she got over the shock. Later, she told me he must have been ‘new in the country’ to ask such a nervy question. I know, it’s wrong to use my white, middle class family as the example by which Canadian behaviour is measured but I think, at that time, many of my fellow citizens would have cringed as well. At least it gave me a story to tell.
I won’t be blogging for a while as I’m off to South Carolina, leaving my trusty son and stalwart husband in charge of the household. I hope to read a few books and gather lots of stories while I’m there.
In the meantime, happy reading.