Thursday, 27 October 2011


You guys!
Last week I had an epiphany.  For real.  Like a life changing revelation.

I was reading Badgers with Knives (a blog written by an Expat living in Liverpool) for the first time.  She linked in her post to a post on another blog.  That linked post was the source of my epiphany.

It seems ridiculous, but this post really opened my eyes to a problem that I'd never fully understood.  I think it's going to change my life.  Go read it now.

Did you read it?  Is your mind blown?

Small talk is not the same in every country!  It's very different in the US and the UK!
What?!?!  Why didn't anyone ever tell me this?  I'm a friendly, cheerful, chatty person with good social skills.  I even have a masters degree in Counseling.  That means I know how to listen and communicate with people.

Confession time:  I haven't made any friends in the UK.
I've lived here for a year and three quarters.  It doesn't help that I work with Ross in our business, so I don't really have an "in" to meet people.  I've tried a couple of times to initiate small talk when out and about, but it's never quite worked.  People (everywhere, not just here) are set in their routines and it takes a bit of doing to get them to veer from their normal course.

I'd heard that being pregnant/having a baby would be a great entrée into the sisterhood of women.  I figured that had to be true.  I've been attending a weekly aqua aerobics class.  There are usually 20 or so women, all at different stages of pregnancy.  I thought, "Awesome!  Built-in things in common.  Pregnant women love to talk about being pregnant... and stuff... right?"

I arrived early for the my first class, awkwardly standing around, not knowing where to go or what I was supposed to do.  I stood around waiting for the midwife to arrive and offer me some guidance.  Eventually the midwife showed up and had me fill in a sheet with my info and we stood waiting for other women to arrive.  The women were all perfectly pleasant, but in a distant abstract way.

There's a period of time during our workout where we pair up and there's opportunity to chat.  I've had the same conversation with each partner every week.  "When are you due?"  "Is this your first?"  "Boy or girl?"  "Where are you giving birth?"  No names.  No personal info of any kind.

I thought maybe after-swim chat would be where it was at.  (Unintentional rhyme!)  In every (American) group class or meeting I've ever been to/participated in/heard of there has been a period of lingering and chit chat after the fact.  You know what I'm talking about.  You leave a meeting and you linger in the parking lot talking about your upcoming week.  You grab a coffee and talk about what you do for work.  Something...
Every week, I've gotten out to the pool and headed to the changing rooms and immediately lost sight of every single woman.  I don't know how it happens!  There must be some sort of magic or David Copperfield illusion involved to make this feat physically possible.  The place is semi-maze-like, but still.  Not a single pregnant woman to be found!

So every week I change clothes and head out to the parking lot, slightly dejected.  But now!  Now!  I know what part of the problem has been.  It's me!  Well sort of.  My expectations of small talk.  I keep expecting it to go somewhere.  To follow the familiar patterns that I'm so used to.  When it doesn't, I feel wrong-footed and awkward.

Since reading this article I have attended aqua aerobics once and prenatal yoga for the first time.  Both times, I was able to feel new confidence and freedom in my epiphany.  I changed my expectations and relaxed.   I still haven't made any friends, but hey... at least I didn't feel awkward the whole time.  I'm just accepting it for what it is.

By the way, wondering why Ross had never explained this cultural difference to me I read the article to him.  He had the following reaction:  "Huh.  Yeah I guess that's probably true.  It explains why I've never been good at small talk either.  I'd rather have a conversation that matters."
British cultural liaison fail!

Have you ever found out a simple piece of information that totally blew your mind?


  1. What constitutes a conversation that matters? The Brits are not the 'fail' as you say. More that they're more aware and realistic to the massive improbability, that this new 'stranger' you've met will ever actually make a difference/contribute/ play a minor or major role on your life. That's not to say that Brits initially engage with people to discover what they will inevitably gain from it. It's a trust related reservation, which really is the right way to go in this day and age. I'm a young lady with 3-4 American friends, and I was riding the tide of gentle progression with all of them. It really wasn't the effort you proclaim. Perhaps you’re thinking too hard about it? That would be the councillor way to approach it.

  2. Anonymous- If you'll read again, I actually never said there was anything wrong with the British way... merely that it was different. The "fail" I referred to, was I thought clearly (though perhaps not), attributed to my husband (my cultural liaison) who I was joking should have informed me of this difference in cultures.
    At the end of my post, I described just what you are advising... I relaxed and am appreciating this cultural difference.

  3. It wasn't clear.
    And good luck.

  4. I never would have thought about that either, but it makes a lot of sense! I'm glad you've had this breakthrough and I hope it helps you connect more with people. I would also find it really difficult to transition to a whole new way of interacting.

  5. it's not a new way! it's all about reading people. and it seems you're not very good at it. this is about you not them.

  6. @Anonymous- I said it's about me. It's a different way of doing things. Now that I understand it, I can alter my expectations and way of thinking about it.

  7. Hi Meg, maybe anonymous is not having a good day ;-) I totally get what you're saying. After a year in Switzerland and now a year and a half in England the very few friends we've made both there and here are ALL expats. No British friends.. I've also just decided to accept it and make friends with whoever else is willing to. I do have a South African friend here who a year ago had a baby and went to every NCT baby get-together and now have quite a few English friends who all had babies around the same time so maybe there is still hope!!

  8. Thanks for the link! I'm sorry you are having as much trouble as I am. I have found though, that perseverance is the key. Keep showing up, keep doing British small talk. Eventually one of the British ladies will take it further. As Andy said to me when I complained to him about this is that the British take time to find out if you're worth taking on to a more intimate level. Of course, that might take years.

    I guess Andy also got it right when he said that in the States we collect new "besties" instantly but loss touch with them, while here, it takes forever to make a friend but when you do, they are your friend for a lifetime.

    So Ms. Meg, would you like to be my new bestie? ;-)

  9. @Brenda- Thanks for the support. It's so funny that a country that seems so similar in many ways can have such big differences.
    @Annelise- Thanks for the kind words. I'm still looking for other expats in Manchester!
    @Moe- Haha! Your husband speaks the truth I think. Aren't we already BFFs? I thought all it took was a link and a comment ;)

  10. Hi Meg. Isn't this interesting?!! I have lived in the Uk for nearly four years, and I just had this same revelation recently myself while reading Kate Fox's book: "Watching the English" (Read the book.... It's awesome, and it will forever change how you socialize in the UK!)
    A few months ago I was at a social gathering hosted by my local village. I approached a woman that had a baby about the same age as my baby. I figured we would have something in common to talk about. She totally looked at me like I was crazy when I asked her what her name was and where she lived. (Come on, I didn't want her full address.... I just wanted to know whether she lived in the village or not!) ha!

  11. @Kris- That's so funny! All of those default openers that we spent years learning are no good any more... Thanks for the recommendation. I'll have to check that book out.