You can’t beat being British. For one thing, you get to be smugly arrogant about all the history that our country has, particularly when you’re currently living in a nation which has had McDonalds restaurants for around 30% of its existence. You get to complain about the weather for roughly 363 days every year. And most importantly, you never ever have to speak to strangers.
As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, New Yorkers stick rigidly to the principle that you do not speak to people on the subway. There’s always the odd rogue agent operating in isolation with a hitherto unimaginable determination to engage passers-by in chat, but you get that anywhere. On the whole, as in London, the residents of New York are true believers in the ancient commandment that reads “Thou shalt not talk to any person within twenty yards of you on a subway train unless thou art truly a nutjob.”
Don’t get me wrong, New York’s a very friendly city, and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that you’ll go into a bar on your own (some things never change, dear reader) and find yourself deep in conversation about
footballsoccer or music, with a bartender or fellow stool-resident. But if you go into a bar on your own, you’re kind of opening yourself up to conversation, so somehow it’s less of an affront to, say, everything you stand for.
So we’ve established that New York and London are one and the same when it comes to dealing with strangers. But there is one exception.
Until moving offices at the end of last week, I worked on the 42nd floor of one of midtown’s skyscrapers. As that was (and indeed still is, last time I checked) the second-to-top floor of the building, I would inevitably be last out of the elevator. And as a Brit, I would expect nothing more than complete silence for the whole thirty second journey, unless punctured by a cough, sneeze or unapologetic fart.
Not in New York.
Here in the city that never sleeps, walking in through an elevator door seems to strip New Yorkers of all their inhibitions when it comes to talking to strangers. The door closes, the buttons are pressed, and suddenly you enter a world that has more inane chat than a David Letterman marathon.
In the last week alone, I’ve been corralled by strangers into conversations about the relative merits of different models of Blackberry’s, the state of the weather (thirty three years of experience in complaining came in useful that day, I can tell you) and even plans for the weekend. On Thursday, I had to listen to a short analysis of the death of Pavarotti (“such a nice man, but all the money in the word couldn’t save him,” apparently).
Stranger still, every time you’re fortunate enough to be stuck in a lift with someone who adheres to the commonly accepted code of silence, they generally then have to break the idyll with a quick “have a good day, sir” as they slip out of the door. It’s as if they have been fighting the urge to speak for the last thirty seconds, and finally couldn’t take it anymore.
Who knows, maybe after a little bit of time, I’ll get used to this and even start indulging in my own unique brand of mindless chatter too. If you’re ever stuck in a lift with me in Britain, just be grateful there aren’t 42 floors until you can escape.