The Great American Conversational Disaster

My ability to waste away hours upon end talking non-stop about very little is the stuff of legend. If Inane Chat was an Olympic sport, I’d have played an integral role in the triumphant Team GB homecoming from Beijing at Heathrow earlier today. Arguably the title of Sir Brit Out Of Water would have been a little excessive for one whose major talent is to be able to blather on about next-to-nothing, but I would have accepted the knighthood with the quiet dignity and grace that it so richly deserved.

The problem with being a Brit Out Of Water is that it’s kind of like undergoing the surgical removal of your small talk. The delicate seven hour operation, which conveniently takes place at high altitude as you fly across the Atlantic, extracts all of the cultural and conversational touchpoints that you’ve held so dear for upwards of thirty years, and leaves you almost 100% chat free for at least the next year. Sure, you can talk about events that have happened directly to you, the news, or universal feelings of love and loathing. But if an expat even thinks about straying into an extended discussion about anything else with a local, you may as well pull out a sudoku puzzle and settle down in a corner on your own for twenty minutes.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some great conversations with people I’ve met since I’ve been here, and I’ve met some fascinating folk. But having spent the last twenty years or so talking about football and the joy of Spangles, suddenly my capacity to connect with people on a sporting or nostalgic level has disappeared. While my ability to name every FA Cup winning side since 1968 may have made me a must-have on the London party circuit, my distinct lack of knowledge regarding the preferred starting line-up of the New York Knicks makes me a social pariah in some city circles. And while my witty bon-mots regarding Roland Rat or Multi-Coloured Swap Shop were the talk of the town, my vacant expression at the very mention of Three’s Company or Alice marks me out as a sad and lonely televisual outcast.

I’ve recently started paying a bit more attention to the Yankees (much to the dismay of The Special One) in the hope that I might be able to ferret away a few choice facts about Johnny Damon’s RBI or Derek Jeter’s OBP for use in a future conversation. The fact that I don’t know what an RBI or OBP is (and wouldn’t be able to pick Johnny Damon out of a police line-up) is neither here nor there. And I’ve decided that all future TV nostalgia chats will be veered towards Chips or Cagney & Lacey, given that I have more than a working knowledge of each. Admittedly it may get boring for my new friends to have to talk about Frank Poncherello or Sharon Gless week-in week-out, but some sacrifices simply have to be made.

In the meantime, any conversational cheat sheets from US readers would be extremely welcome. Packets of Chewits and cans of Irn Bru to anybody who helps me pass my forthcoming PhD in Trivial American Conversational Nuggets.

14 thoughts on “The Great American Conversational Disaster

  1. Melanie Seasons

    Don’t feel bad. I got caught up in a conversation about children’s TV shows in Britain in the late 70s/early 80s and I had no idea what anyone was talking about. I could contribute Sesame Street and the ‘Simon‘ sketches from SNL about 15 years ago. Neither went over well.

  2. Alasdair

    Dylan – Trivial Pursuit – American Literature questions – seems like 50% or so of the questions have the answer of Steinbeck or Hemingway (and not Steinway (piano) or Hemingbeck (?)) …

    For ‘Three’s Company’, improvise based upon ‘Man About The House’ … for ‘All In The Family’, improvise upon ‘Til Death Us Do Part’ … for ‘Sanford and Son’, improvise upon ‘Steptoe and Son’ …

    For small talk, Harry Potter may be your best bet … just remember to simplify the concepts … “Philosopher’s Stone” becomes “Sorceror’s Stone” …

    And, for a nostalgia fix, the Terry Pratchett Discworld series are *very* good …

  3. Brooklyn

    Depending on the age of your interlocutors, you could try these British imports of days past:

    Dr. Who (Tom Baker era, with special effects that appear to have been created in an 11 year-old’s bedroom)
    The Saint (Roger Moore with more weight, hair and Brilliantine than his 007 incarnation)
    Dangerman/Secret Agent Man (Same show, differing title, Patrick McGoohan as John Drake)
    The Prisoner (Patrick McGoohan as No. 6 (John Drake again?))(a safe choice in view of the Simpson’s parody episode)
    Monty Python’s Flying Circus
    or Benny Hill (and may the Lord have mercy on your soul if you rely on this one).

  4. Brooklyn

    Dylan:

    BTW, it’s CHiPs, not Chips. The former refers to the old show about the California Highway Patrol; the latter would refer to a show about a Bristol fish fry joint.

  5. Dylan Post author

    Brooklyn – I think you’ll find that I actually WAS referring to the show about the fish fry place. It was set in Swindon (not Bristol), and detailed the life of a former police motorbike cop who crossed the Atlantic to fulfil his lifelong dream of serving the people of Wiltshire their beloved haddock, chips and mushy peas. It only lasted two seasons, sadly.

  6. Allegedly

    Brooklyn doesn’t seem to be happy unless she is ragging on someone or correcting them. But, she’s pretty funny.

  7. Brooklyn

    Au contraire. See post 3.

    As for post 5, Dylan, since it was directed at you, do you concur with Allegedly’s assessment of “ragging or correcting”? That wasn’t my intent, but what was your initial reaction?

  8. Dylan

    I thought it was pretty funny to be honest, as I would hope was clear from my response. Certainly didn’t cross my mind that you were taking a school teacherly disapproval, anyway.

  9. Ange

    Ah Spangles! Ah Multi Coloured Swap Shop! Ah Noel Edmonds – No wait, maybe not him! Love them, miss them… Yes the conversation sometimes stumps me still after 10 years but the added advantage of being female means no one expects me to understand baseball or football (I do this quietly for myself while pining for footy and rugby) AND I find that the topic of shopping is universal. Very helpful. I seem to have more problems being understood for slang that still crops up or my pronunciation. I have found that it helps to change it, if your preference for salad dressing is ‘ranch’ and you drink ‘water’ by choice when in restaurants. I have a southern British accent and can’t have either of the aforementioned without repeating it several times. I now have tea and blue cheese but I’m happy to adapt.

    Most interestingly, twice in the last week, meeting new people in college, they have asked me to say ‘Harry Potter’ for them. Simple nerdy pleasures, I’m willing to oblige.

  10. Brooklyn

    Dylan:

    Thanks.

    That’s how I DID read your response, but Allegedly’s post gave me some second thoughts.

  11. Marmite Breath

    I struggle with this. I moved to the States as a teenager (14) and have been here for 18 years. I go back every year or so, and definitely consider myself a proper Brit, although my accent fades the longer I am here (only to mysteriously reappear when I am at home or talking to the family).

    I had a point here, but I’ve just bored myself silly.

    I guess I was going to say that I still get upset when I don’t have anybody to discuss Adrian Mole or Going Live with (my sisters were younger than me and immediately morphed into Americans).

    And my husband thinks it is madness when I tell him, “We didn’t have that show/programme in England” or “That song didn’t actually define the 80s for me like it did for you, because while you were listening to (fill in the blank here with Joan Jett-esque type music) I was listening to Agadoo, pushing a goddamned pineapple and shaking the tree”

  12. Sarah

    Oh I sooo agree about the sport chat being long gone. I mean Yanks just don’t do soccer, F1 and rugby, altho’ the hubster does thank god and will even watch enthusiastically god love him.

    As for small talk, I’m lucky in Okieland. Here they are as obsessed with the weather as the Brit’s are, so if all else fails!

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