It had been a long day at the studio and I couldn’t face the stove, so we popped into a restaurant on the way home. Brian and I were deep in conversation, half way through a sentence, in fact, when a voice chirped: ‘Hi! How’s your week been so far?’ A perky young waitress waited, clearly expecting an answer, perhaps even a happy little conversation. We forced a smile, mumbled something neutral and buried our heads in the menus. It’s all part of a new and supremely irritating form of exchange where people you’ve never met in your life ask you personal questions, and apparently it’s not acceptable to tell them to mind their own business. I’ve become inured to trainee hairdressers and shop assistants demanding to know about my day, when I just want them to wash my hair or let me find a pair of jeans in peace. I’ve learned to keep my cool when telephone cold callers enquire about my health, ‘Hi Judy, it’s Brandi here from XYZ Services-how-are-you-today?’ There’s never a comma in this, by the way. The whole point of these questions is to get in before you ask what they want. After you’ve discussed the state of your day and/or health and moved on to lamenting the weather, it’s harder to tell them to naff off when they move on to the sales pitch.
What’s wrong with this? Isn’t it all just part of the lubrication that smoothes social intercourse? It’s just a formal exchange: How’s your day been?/Fine, how about yours? So why does it make me so irrationally annoyed? Because it’s totally phony, that’s why, and I find it demeaning. A total stranger is demanding personal information, because some idiot’s instructed them to ‘make conversation’ with customers. And these questions demand an answer, an answer of equal phoniness. The truth is that they don’t give a damn – about you, your day, your health or your views on the weather. If you watch the trainee hair-washers, you’ll see the looks of vacant boredom as their clients chat away. Watch the shop assistants and you’ll see the veiled horror if a lonely client actually takes up the conversational offer. None of this is as banal as a hairdresser I once had who always answered the phone carolling, ‘How can I brighten your day?’ I changed hairdressers, because I couldn’t bring myself to phone for appointments. I think we should strike back. When they ask, tell them – in excruciating detail. The monthly statistics meeting, the problems with getting people to pay their bills, the endless hassles with the HR manager, the interesting new stain on the ceiling of your office. Then when you get a call from someone with a sales pitch and a ‘how-are-you-today?’ run them through your entire medical history. Embellish a little. And if they’re still on the phone at the end of all that, give them the lowdown on your Uncle Harry’s piles and the details of his operation.