Tis the season to be sociable

By Khaled Diab

The British are famously reserved, but so are the Belgians. Let's break the ice and make the public sphere more friendly.

30 December 2009

On a wintry commuter train, I sat immersed in a short story by the dandy and essayist Max Beerbohm in which two Englishmen convalescing from the flu by the sea astutely avoid any communications with each other beyond a cursory nod of recognition.

“Anywhere but in it would be impossible for two solitary men … to spend five or six days in the same hostel and not exchange a single word,” Beerbohm observes.

Despite the massive changes that have occurred in British since Beerbohm wrote these words, “” remains something of a byword. For example, it is no accident that, in English, getting to know someone is painfully known as “breaking the ice”, as if strangers and new acquaintances were stranded on a social iceberg in the middle of the ocean.

Nevertheless, looking around the carriage, where the vast majority of commuters have concealed their eyes behind the veil of a book or newspaper, their ears behind a wall of music, or have drawn the blanket of sleep between themselves and their fellow passengers, I begged to differ with Beerbohm.

Here in , “Belgian reserve” would give its English counterpart a serious run for its money. In Beerbohm's England, people might spend days at a hotel without exchanging a single word; in the Belgium I know, people can spend years taking the same train and remain oblivious to one another.

I became a commuter when I moved to Ghent, but continued to work in Brussels, some four and a half years ago. During that time, I've become visually acquainted with a fair number of regular commuters on the same line.

Come rain or shine, sleet or snow, wintry darkness or summery light, we all exhibit an exemplary level of decorum. Even the most eccentric – such as the passenger my wife and I call Newspaper Man because of his habit of gathering up all the abandoned papers on his trip home – elicit no reaction.

While some will exchange a nod or a smile of recognition, others will go to the extraordinary lengths of pretending they are not even aware of one another's mutual existence, like blank-, or bleary-eyed automatons on the office conveyor belt. But even among this breed I occasionally spot signs of recognition, if not in their eyes then at least in their actions.

One man is so professional at blanking out his fellow commuters that the busy platform he stands on may as well be occupied by phantoms took the unprecedented step of keeping the tram door open for me when he noticed me sprinting to catch it. When I turned to him and smiled with gratitude, he looked so excruciatingly uncomfortable that I vowed to do him the favour of never again acknowledging him.

That's not to say there is no spontaneity in public. People do sometimes engage one another in spontaneous conversation in cafes and bars, and even on trains, especially in the summer – one enduring friendship was even sparked by a book I was reading on sexual ethics in . But the occasions are rare enough to be memorable.

Even though I've lived here for more than eight years, the extremes to which people go to maintain their and that of others still fascinate and baffle me.

The situation couldn't be more different in Egypt, which largely occupies the opposite extreme on the privacy and reserve spectrum – though in certain respects, such as interactions between the sexes, Egypt is more private.

In bustling Cairo, a spontaneous social encounter is waiting and impatiently kicking its heels around every corner. Though Egyptians are getting more private and the level of reserve rises with social class, it is difficult to pass a day – often even a few hours – without a friendly interaction with strangers, from cabbies to fellow passengers.

In fact bring together any number of Egyptians for more than half an hour in one place and they're likely to start chatting happily to while away the minutes. And the nature of that interaction differs, too. A cursory first encounter is quite often enough for Egyptians, if they warm to one another, to exchange phone numbers and agree to meet again.

The downside of this is that, in the dash, or even stampede, to be friendly and sociable, the intensity of the public sphere can be overwhelming and notions of privacy too often get ditched by the wayside.

To my mind, we need a happy medium between public introversion and extroversion – a sort of interversion. People should make an effort to make the public sphere more friendly and personal, but they should also respect one another's privacy and be sensitive to other people's personal space.

So, during this festive season, why not go out and exchange some friendly words with a stranger – preferably without the tongue-loosening catalyst of the seasonal spirits.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 22 December 2009. Read the related discussion.

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