Terence Blacker



How to make the English suspicious of you: smile

It is not just the weather that gets one, returning to England in January, nor even the balls-aching dreariness of our political life. It is the dourness of the people you meet every day.

Three weeks away, and one tends to forget that to smile at a stranger in England is suspect, borderline nutty. If you ask a shop assistant how they are today, they assume you are taking the piss.

Admittedly, my trip abroad was to San Francisco and then Australia, two places where the sunny weather is reflected in the way behave people behave to one another.

The accepted British attitude to America’s have-a-nice-day culture is that it is shallow, insincere, slightly silly. I’m not so sure.

In San Francisco, where cheery politeness is part of everyday life – at least for most of the time –  there is something enviably evolved about the city’s civic life: no litter, an unquestioning acceptance of environmental responsibility. Over the holiday period, the parks and streets were full of families enjoying the gentle sunshine. Even the dogs, of which there were many, seemed happy.

Admittedly, it can seem a bit much at first, this lack of scratchiness and aggression, the slightly spooky acceptance that certain types of behaviour  -  smoking is the most obvious example – are unacceptable. It is decency taken to a fundamentalist level.

After a while, though, you go with it. The openness of strangers contributes to a sense of a place  at ease with itself, and that makes individuals feel and behave better, too.

As for Australia, why shouldn’t they be pleasant? They have the weather, the space (on pavements, in shops, on roads), an economy buoyed by mineral wealth. Yet there, too, the civility and cheeriness is contagious.

Back home, it is  a shock to be reminded how, even in the countryside where people tend to be kinder and more open, a guarded suspicion of strangers is accepted as normal. It is of a piece with dropping your rubbish, with the hard-eyed cynicism towards anyone in public life, with a general leery defeatism.

My belated New Year’s resolution was to be more San Franciscan and Australian in my daily life, and it was tested soon after my return home.

I was attending one of those public enquiries where the interests of developers were pitted against the preservation of the countryside. On this occasion, where the aim was presumably to find the right, sensible way forward, the tone was bruising, brutal and confrontational.

Making my own brief statement to the enquiry, I decided not to join the dogfight, but to go for a gently positive approach, resisting the temptation to sneer at, or score points off,  those with whom I disagree quite profoundly.

At one point in my submission, I looked at one of the developers, now an opponent of several years’ standing. She was grinning.

I had got an English smile at last  -   but it was a nasty one. She, and perhaps everyone else at the enquiry, took my approach as a sign of weakness.

It may take a while to become acclimatised once more to the curmudgeonly manner of discourse in this  ungenerous country of ours.

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