Monday, October 27, 2008

Things I miss about England #69: small talk. There's an old joke: Two Italians, two Frenchman and two Brits are stranded on a desert island. The Italians immediately strike up a conversation and launch an Italian restaurant. The Frenchmen do the same and start a patisserie. The two Brits move to opposite sides of the island and never speak to each other as they haven't been formerly introduced.

Now, what would happen if you put two Brazilians on the island? I think they'd watch football together buut sleep with knives under their pillows for fear of the other guy stealing their wallet in the night (see this post for more on why Brazilians have the lowest levels of trust for all of South America). Either that, or they'd discover they were distantly related, in which case they'd team up and start a successful samba school.

So, why the long preamble? Well, its just that how Brazilians get to know strangers is profoundly different to how Brits do it. For many Brits there is an expectation that small talk, although often a nusiance, is an essential part of social interaction. For example, weddings. There are always a few tables at British reception dinners made up of a handful of odds and ends friends and relatives who have to sit next to each other. By the end of the meal, Mr.X has discovered he shares a passion for tiddly-winks much like Ms. Y sitting next to him and Mr. Z has learned that he shares an office with one of Mrs.A's old school friends. etc. etc.

In Brazil, the situation is wholly different. At a wedding, all the family and kids would all come along and there wouldn't be set places so there would never be this need to confront people anyone didn't know. What I've noticed (by often being on the receiving end as a stranger in various settings myself) is that to get to know Brazilians you have to approach them in much the same way as Donnie Brasco did the mafia. Just keep showing up with people who can vouch that you're "safe" and after some time you'll be absorbed into the group and find yourselves doing the same things as everyone else. Equally, its possible you could hang around some Brazilians for a long time and never learn any details about their lives - you just happen to have a few shared experiences together. I have this sort of relationship with some of Rachel's friends - I'm definitely part of the gang on account of being married into the Barlow clan and a handful of them are even my facebook friends, but none of us have actually had anything like a conversation. Small talk has been absent.

Why do I mention this now? Last Saturday we went to a birthday party for a kid from Nelson's school. The usual candidates were there - Nelson's best pal Rafa and her Mum and one or two others that Rach has gotten to know. To my delight, I found that one of my ex-students, a lawyer was there with her husband. And then, one of her friends, also an ex-student turned up. They eye-balled me suspiciously for a while to the point where it was just getting embarrassing for me and for them so I crossed the balloon-infested floor to do "small talk". After some stiff handshakes and kisses they asked me how I was and what I was doing there. I explained my presence at this festa on a Saturday night and pointed out Rachel, Gloria and Nelson strewn around the corners of the room. My two friends/aquaintances shot me a quick glance as if to say "why are you telling us this? We won't be introducing you to our families". So, I quickly changed the subject to the weather or travel or something and moved on. We never spoke again all evening. Small talk was absent, and I have to say I missed it.

Things I love about Brazil # 69: live music. On Friday afternoon I took Nelson on an adventure. We recruited Tio Dyego and made our way onto the UFRN campus for the Sciene Week fair. Now, thoroughly accustomed to the fact that any Brazilian event doesn't have to do what it says on the tin, I wasn't sure what to expect and I thought it might be lucky if we saw anything sciene-related. As it happens, they were starting to take down some of the stalls as it was the end of the week but I, and Nelson, did get to see some cool stuff. I found out one interesting fact: UFRN (the State university of Rio Grande do Norte) had about 8,000 students in 1970, about 9,500 students in 1998 and now has nearly 30,000 - a testament to both how little education was prioritised until relatively recently (this stems from the colonial legacy - unlike the British, the Portuguese were not interested in educating their subjects) and also how much the government sees tertiary education as the key to Brazil's future as a competitive developing nation.

Most perplexing though, was how the sciene fair was dominated by two large stages for Rock concerts. Indeed, the evening performances by the acts on stage constituted the heart of the week´s events as the students themselves had been given the week off from studying to contribute to the whole hoopla. As for me, I was able to see, over a popcorn with Nels and Dyego, the start of a set from a pretty nifty campus band and it brought back fond memories of propping up dingy bars in York catching the latest wannabe act. In the end, as was the case with the local elections a few weeks ago and also with a recent Catholic procession that practically rearranged the paving stones outside the language school thanks to a bass drum, academia, debate, religion and a serious consideration of the facts very quickly give way to a party atmosphere where he who plays loudest wins. If heaven is a place where Brits will provide the hymn-writers, Americans will supply the electric guitars and Africans will be the singers then without a doubt we can expect the Brazilians to provide the walls of speakers on wheels.

1 comment:

Leonardo Pinheiro said...

I think you were very unfortunate to not finding people who like to do small talk in Brazil. It depends much on whether you live in a more individualist neighborhood or not. I assure you that there are much people that like small talk here.

Anyway, your blog is very nice. I'm reading it to understand more about England and the English people. Maybe one day I go to live in London.