Friday, 9 September 2011

The size of a small country

What is 38 inches high, has removable legs, and only turns in one direction? I am (not really very) sorry to say that I will not be able to answer this question with any certainty, as the conversation that inspired said query has now been blocked out by the welcome noise of my iPod. I’m on a train (again!) for another hello/goodbye journey and, much as I love people watching, there is a limit to how much noisy Brummie chatter I can cope with when I’m trying to read. So, writing and loud music is my solution.

Not, I hasten to add, that I do not enjoy a spot of eavesdropping now and again – in fact, I am known for being unable to cope with more than two audio sources at a time (and sometimes not even two; just a snippet of a song on the radio can throw me off any conversational path I might be on), and so often I will daydream off into whatever the people around me are discussing and not seem to be engaged at all with whatever activity it is I’m supposed to be doing. Even listening to my iPod now, I have to keep stopping when a particular lyric is about to be sung, as otherwise I risk writing it into this blog post by mistake. This is why trying to read with loud conversation in the vicinity is pretty much impossible for me: too many voices.

This does lead me to want to assure you that I actually love the diversity of our in-public culture here in the UK, and I am in no way suggesting these ladies should be quieter about their be-legged, 3ft, mono-turning item of mystery. In between songs, I hear snippets of verbal exchanges: a mention of the “naughty step” to a wailing child; a moan about the fact that the train has stopped again, apparently with no reason (I am sure that speculation about reasons for the pause occurred after the next song started; the British do love to enjoy their minor failures at being unable to do even the simplest of things without complications); a hushed conversation on a mobile phone about an upcoming meeting that might be problematic to get started on time now that the train is late. I love this. I love people. I enjoy observing interactions, wondering how each individual might interpret the same --

*distracted by Barenaked Ladies*

-- event with a slightly different nuance. I wonder what the quieter people might be thinking, where pretty much everyone here is going, why they might be going there. I also like to entertain myself by wondering what they might be thinking of me. Not in an arrogant way, you understand: I am well aware that people are essentially egocentric and that my presence is unlikely to have even registered on their radar. Like several of my friends, I think I take a greater interest than the average person in individuals around me that I don’t know personally. Having said that, the fact that a grinning blonde girl sat alone on a train is typing furiously, looking around now and again as though to check on something, and intermittently stops everything to bob her head and/or clap along to what isn’t really quiet music on her headphones hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed. I love knowing that there is so little they know about me, and thus there is so much that I correspondingly do not know about them. That’s what I really enjoy about these kinds of thoughts. It makes me rejoice in the diversity of the human race and it makes me feel quite happy and contented.

*hums along to The Mavericks* *dances in seat*

Inevitably, my thoughts then turn to how this will all change when I move to the USA. Initially, I imagine that it won’t: I am always going to be interested in how others around me behave and interact with one another. But while that might stay the same, the significance of any gestures, looks, tones and so on will potentially be very different. I won’t have to learn a new language as such but I will have to learn how behaviour and verbal exchanges are interpreted. The cultural differences may be subtle, they may be glaring, they may be somewhere in between, but they won’t be ingrained in my brain in the way my understanding of British norms is. Because of this potential obstacle, or at least steep learning curve, I have started reading a book on American culture which, when I am a decent way through it, I will no doubt blog about. I hope it helps, at least a little bit, but I am sure that living there is the only real way to come to a true understanding of the culture.

*grins happily at guy watching me bob in my seat* *grins more when he looks away quickly*

In my last job as a teacher of Psychology, I taught a module to GCSE students about the importance of non-verbal communication. One really fascinating thing for both me and the students was the different interpretations of the same gesture. Eye contact, for example, can be seen as a way to express respectfully paying attention to someone speaking to you (US/UK/Europe) or as a rude, even aggressive focus on a person, especially if that person is of a higher status than you (more Eastern cultures).

*pauses for "What’s up with Will and Grace? I don’t get drum and bass – the future freaks me out!”*

That was quite a conveniently timed line, actually. When I am in America, although it is likely that I will get along just fine (speaking roughly the same language, the US and UK both being Western powers, and having our “special relationship” should be a buffer between me, and a help to my learning, the differences), I have a feeling that I will be more restrained while I am familiarising myself with cultural norms. For one, I doubt I will be found on a train, bobbing up and down in my seat and cheerfully mouthing words to cheesy songs for some time after settling in NC. I am aware that I might look a little strange to my fellow Brits, but I also know that they won’t, in general approach me about it, or be too worried as I look otherwise sane. I have no clue how such behaviour might be taken in the US and, while it could be excused because of my being a foreigner (!), may have more connotations than I can even begin to imagine. Which makes me wonder what else I will be learning – I am getting so excited!


  1. Do they even have trains in NC? I'm sure you can sing and bob your head as much as you like in your car. I shall miss the luxury or sitting on a bus or a train and watching people. Watching the world go by. In London there is such a mix of people to watch and so many fun things to make up about their lives. Who doesn't love a spot of people watching.

    Hopefully settling into US life won't be too difficult. But you might want to learn what the local gang signs or colours are and avoid using them! :-)

  2. They do have trains in NC (they make lots of noise!), but they're freight trains, not passenger trains. Charlotte does have CATS, though, which is the local bus service.

    Ben is going to teach me about where I should avoid going in the city, and my dad has already pointed out the "block-to-block" phenomenon. Not sure about the gang colours, but will make sure to be savvy! :)


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