Several years ago I was in a taxi heading for Moscow airport. I spoke no Russian and the driver no English, but that was no obstacle. Soon we were chatting away about football – what else? The topic of our conversation was Manchester United. One of us would mention the name of a player – Bobby Charlton was the first, if I remember correctly – and the other would nod to indicate recognition. Then, by giving the thumbs up (or down) we would rate his skills and, by counting on our fingers, would recall the number of goals he had scored in a particular game.
Next, we moved on to George Best. There were lots of smiles and bonhomie, and by the time we got to Nobby Stiles we were parking outside the departure entrance. We had a common wish to communicate; we had found a shared interest and the words flowed. Had the passenger been a woman the subject might well have been family and children, or in other circumstances, the weather. No matter, finding such a shared interest – a common currency – is part of the fabric of communication. It doesn’t have to be in a Moscow taxi, the same holds for a dinner party in London.
In other circumstances where there is no language barrier, such an opening conversation might have been followed by sharing ideas on a topic with more intellectual or personal content – perhaps a play, a film or book, or politics, pastimes or health experiences. It is almost always possible to find some common topic.
Just recently, however, finding common ground proved elusive. The problem arose ironically at a language school. I was staying just south of Paris and immersed in French for two weeks. During the fortnight I spent breakfast and dinner conversing with a soft-spoken, thoughtful, mid sixties French landlady. Linguistically it was limited but very effective. However, during the day I spent four to five hours sharing a class with ten students. All of them were intent on mastering the language; many of them found communication difficult. We were all at much the same level in terms of our French, but in terms of our age the class favoured youth. In ascending order, one student was aged 17, three 18, two 19, three between 20-24, one was a retired woman of 66 and then there was me. Despite much prompting by middle-aged teachers several of the younger ones had little to say in class and even less to say outside. Once details had been exchanged about first name, country of origin and occupation (mainly “student”) there was silence. Subjects such as “inequality”, “career prospects”, “violence on the streets or in the home”, “women’s rights” or “the general political shift to the right” were greeted with little more than a shrug of the shoulders. In fact, we – the two oldies and the teachers – never really found a common currency with the majority of the young set. Whether they had actually nothing to share, or they felt that their limitations in French made trying to voice an opinion was a waste of time or whether – with me anyway – there was no great interest in sharing views with someone old who appeared as some alien form, I can’t know. Whatever the reason, while I found the teachers inspiring, sharing ideas with the majority of this particular group of students in their teens and twenties was almost impossible. Somehow, there was no common currency and the communication gap was never bridged.
Despite its drawbacks, this experience felt altogether more wholesome than when a day or so ago common currency was turned into a session of teasing-come-harassment. I have never much liked the paper shop near our house in Brittany. The owner is known locally as a chauvinist and sexist and many local people, women particularly, refuse to buy their papers from him. Indeed, for years I would avoid his jibes – he would often talk mockingly to me in an anglicised German accent – by cycling to another village to get my paper, adding eight mikes to my trip.
The episode in question was on the morning after England had been eliminated from the World Cup and France handsomely won her second game and thus would almost certainly proceed to the next stage – football again! As I reached the counter I warmly congratulated the owner and thus the four men behind me in the queue on France’s play. Then, led by the shopkeeper, the teasing started as the men started their jibes and sniggers. And five men working in unison can be very intimidating. It was not so much what they said but their manner and their body language. Suddenly there was real anger directed at “perfide Albion” – a derogatory 16th century expression still used against those living over the Channel and meaning “the treacherous English”. In their mockery, the paper-shop group had used a common currency, not to share but to abuse.
I got home feeling shaken. Teasing in a jokey way is something I know and recognise; teasing to hurt and even frighten is altogether different. How very different it was to my warm experience with the taxi driver in Moscow all those years ago.
Photo: Perfidious Albion, as seen from France, July 1940