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3 Oct 2014
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Stranger Etiquette

Writer, Simon Brett, thinks we British are an anti-social lot...

We British have never been that good with strangers. The French get into railway compartments with a cheery "M'sieurs, dames", to everyone, whereas we Brits pretend there's no one else there.

Travelling back from Paris on Eurostar last year, by covertly listening to what they were saying, I'd established that most of the other people in the carriage were English. Then a man made a call on his mobile phone, saying, "it's just after 4, the journey takes three hours but there's a hour's time difference, so could you meet me at Waterloo around 8 o'clock?"

We were faced with a dilemma. We knew the time difference worked the opposite way which could lead to all kinds of complications - a missed business meeting, a broken love affair... But for any of us to say anything would be tantamount to admitting that we'd listened to the man's conversation. Not a word was said. Very British.

Say 'hello' to someone you've never met in London and you'll probably be arrested for sexual harrassment. Even in the country, with people you know, there's a kind of protocol involved when you're out walking. A nod is fine. So's a little flat-handed wave. You could risk a "Good morning" but whatever you do, though, you mustn't engage in proper conversation before midday.

Being a writer, I get an extra dimension to it. A friend once admitted, "I saw you having your walk this morning but I didn't like to say anything because I thought you might be thinking". I love that image - writer, wafting about in an hermetically-sealed carapace of thought but I have to tell you it's absolute cobblers. This particular writer's mind is full of gloomy clutter - how to pay the tax bill, asking questions like ... is not fancying the Spice Girls a sign of age or just of good taste?

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