When I first came to Australia as a young gal, I remember so well how confronting I thought it was when shop assistants asked me ‘how are you?’ Or ‘how’s your day going?’ and I immediately had to resist the urge to run out of the shop and hide somewhere. Born and raised in Norway, I just wasn’t used to this random chit chat. What was I meant to respond? What did they want from me?
Later on, this obviously became the norm even in my life, and I found myself asking people the same questions, forgetting that I was once so intrigued by the real meaning of such phrases. I now understand that these types of questions work as a social lubricant – meaning that they make it easier for us to approach each other, making strangers into another version of you. It cuts through our scepticism and fear of other people when we look into a stranger’s eyes and realise that we are both making the same effort to have a conversation about something relatively ‘empty’, like the weather. In other words, it’s not about the content of a conversation; it’s about the people, and our willingness to communicate with those who share a part in our day, whether it’s at the super market, the coffee shop or whilst waiting for a tram.
‘Phatic communication’, or small talk, is still something I’m learning to master. Aussies, on the other hand, are excellent at this art form. Whether in country towns or in Melbourne CBD, at restaurants or shopping malls, people often strike up a chat just for the sake of a chat, and there’s never any time to be offended. ‘Where did you get that skirt from?’ ‘What’s that dish you’re eating?’ ‘Can it get any hotter?’ ‘What are you up to on the weekend?’ and the list goes on. Ahhh, the small talk and its associated gestures. What a brilliant way to make a society run more smoothly. The laughter when the 5 pm commuters are all crammed into the loaded train carriers. A situation that could make anyone ‘go off’ so to speak, suddenly becomes so ridiculous that all you can do is giggle, like an ‘oh well, it could be a lot worse’ kinda scenario. It seems to me that one of my greatest lessons learnt whilst living in Australia, has turned out to be the ability not to take people and situations too seriously, to be able to giggle at most things, and be less afraid of strangers. I now realise that most people are really only a reflection of myself, with their similar lives and ideas and wants. Who would have thought??!