We’ve all heard it, usually from the lips of an out-of-towner with an anguished look on their face; I’ve certainly heard it many times from members of my wife’s family who hail from the North East. It goes something like this: “Oh London, can’t stand it, everyone’s so unfriendly, people don’t talk to each other.” To which our reflex response is – that’s not true, we try to get to know our neighbours, we greet them on the street, but we can’t talk to everyone. The conversation ends with neither side convinced. I’m right and they’re wrong – of course.
But wait a minute Londoners, what if you’re wrong and those pesky northerners have a point?
It’s embarrassing to admit that there are many people in my part of London (SW8, since you ask) who I meet and interact with on a regular basis, but about whom I know absolutely nothing. I may well see them more often than I see my friends but I don’t even know their names. It works like this.
You take your shirts to a laundrette that offers an ironing service. On the first visit, you merely hand over the shirts and ask when they’ll be ready. It turns out the service is efficient; the shirts are neatly pressed and the price is right. Now you are going there every week but you still don’t know the lady’s name and after a while it’s embarrassing to ask. Soon you start talking about ‘your ironing lady’.
Perhaps you’ve found a café that sells a decent flat-white close to your office, you generally get served by the same bloke who becomes ‘your barista guy’. You are starting to behave like an aloof millionaire not wanting to interact with the servants – despite only having £10 in your bank account to last you to pay day. You are morphing into that person you hate, the one who is unpleasant to waiters.
Not good Londoners, this has to change. So yesterday when I went to pick up my shirts (yes it was me all the time) I said to the ‘ironing lady’: “Hi, my name’s Jim I’m always forgetting to ask you yours…” She smiled and said: “It’s Ana, I’m from Romania, nice to meet you.” Which was pretty decent of her as I’ve been meeting her roughly once a week for the last two years.
“What’s your name by the way?” may be a simple sentence but it has a kind of magic. I’ve now used this spell on the security guard at a client’s office I regularly attend (Tito) and on my ‘barista guy’ who is actually called Geoff.
Perhaps your ‘dry cleaner dude’ is bored with his job and can use a little social interaction that goes beyond the dead eyed exchange of money, goods and services. Pleasant conversation may ensue. Why don’t you try it? Then check that your friends in the north are doing it too. Be better, be courteous.