I once heard someone say that 'it's not easy being British in a lift'. I thought it was the perfect soundbite. Brits are, in general, polite, pleasant and ultimately, awkward. Don't pretend you don't avoid eye contact with a colleague you see at lunch, even though you sit next to each other all day. Like most nations, we have our own rules for everything. But it seems to be that the ones regarding socialising are, well, not that sociable. I once appeared on a programme hosted by Ian Hislop that looked to explore the British stiff upper lip. The conclusion was that times had changed - but I don't think that necessarily means we have. I can't help but think that we're missing out.
Two weeks ago, I went to Rome. By the time I plonked down on the hotel bed that evening, I felt like a different person. Sounds ridiculous, I know. But being thrown into the deep end of another culture, being around people who aren't afraid of conversation - and not just functional interactions - sent my 'Britishness' into critical condition. They talked to me, and soon, I found myself talking to them, too. At the airport four days later, my boyfriend and I teamed up with an Italian man to work out what was happening with our flight home (EasyJet). After an hour in his company, I asked if we could be friends. No paraphrasing. Akin to a child in the playground, I literally said, 'Can we be friends?' My boyfriend strategically made a toilet visit at this point, too embarrassed to be part of the conversation. But my new pal said yes. And I felt content as we swapped email addresses. We had nothing in common and knew little about each other, but it was an exchange that meant something.
After that, it was as if the floodgates had opened, and my new-found confidence and curiosity took over. I was getting my nails done in my local salon when one of the staff started chatting to me, as if we knew each other. She'd done my nails the time before and we'd talked about Asia (I'm half Chinese, she's Vietnamese). I hadn't expected her to remember me. She told me she was moving back to Vietnam the next week and we shared a hug.
This isn't like a gap year brag. You know, 'I'm so cultured and brilliant'. It's not a brag at all. There's nothing new or groundbreaking about speaking to people, even in a world of ever-growing virtual interactions. But I think that's what's baffling. If it's so normal and easy (and the benefits outweigh the effort) why aren't we doing it more often? Of course, I can't generalise. Not long ago, I was sat in a café reading a book when a British man started chatting to me, and we ended up having an hour-long chat about the corporate world. We didn't even know each other's names, but the feelings of positivity I left with were all that mattered.
I don't know about you, but I'm a better person when I'm around people who aren't like me - neurotic, uncertain, by some margins very British. Without (hopefully) sounding wanky, I think these exchanges nourish the soul, give meaning to our everyday routines, and quite simply, make us feel good. I'm hoping I can keep this up and have exchanges galore. Before long, we'll all be jabbering to each other on the tube. Ok, baby steps.