Category Archives: Conversation

New York cranks it up to 11

There’s no getting away from the fact that New Yorkers are loud. Whether they’re talking to a friend on the street, or snarling out curses like SmartiesM&Ms to passers-by who have the temerity to cross the road infront of them, New Yorkers have a volume control that is set at least 25% higher than the rest of the world’s. Their idea of an intimate conversation is just one in which they don’t bother to use the megaphone.

Of course, this is all grist to the mill of the accidental voyeur. Back in London I had to use all manner of devices and props, from newspapers to earphones attached to an iPod that wasn’t turned on, in an attempt to listen in to other people’s conversations. Here in the US, you just make sure that you’re on the same block and you’re in with a shout. Quite literally, in some cases.

Since moving here, I’ve heard all manner of bizarre chats between New York residents. I’ve heard more about people’s love lives than I ever needed to know, listened to a man on his phone threatening to wreak all manner of damage on his ex’s house if she didn’t go out and find his cat, and effectively sat in on a brainstorming session between two ad execs planning a campaign for a drug to combat high blood pressure.

Above the babble and din as I wandered through Chelsea Market at lunchtime, I heard two guys bantering after presumably bumping into each other on their lunch hours. As usual, raised voices were the order of the day, despite the two guys awkwardly hugging and standing mere inches apart as a result.

“How are you, asshole?” laughed the first guy.

“Dude, I don’t even know you,” shouted the other.

I walked alongside the first guy as the pair separated, his smile fading as he turned around to take another look at his friend.

“S**t, it wasn’t even the guy I know after all,” he muttered to himself as he walked off, his face reddening.

Embarrassment and shame – a very private error in the rest of the world, open-air theatrical performance for the benefit of everyone in New York…

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.