Walking through my neighbourhood today, I found myself wondering how the late Maeve Binchy, our former columnist of glorious insights into everyday life, would have adapted to the pandemic. I don’t mean how she would have adapted to the ongoing challenges that have taxed all of us now for close on two years. I mean, where would she have turned to glean her inspirations from the public who for long periods now remain unseen at home?
You don’t need me to remind you that Maeve Binchy practically invented the art of eavesdropping, and much of that was done either waiting for public transport, or on it. Numbers using public transport are much reduced, social distancing is involved once on board, so sitting in close proximity to other people is out. Maeve would have been a bit flummoxed. And with all the mask wearing, she wouldn’t even have been able to lip read.
I have zero doubt that the brilliant Maeve would have found some other way of tapping into the zeitgeist for writing inspiration. Perhaps it would come from the couriers arriving at her Dalkey door, or the neighbours, or the visiting fairies sprinkling fairy dust over all she wrote.
I too miss all those idle conversations over the course of what used to be ordinary days. Some people don’t like talking to strangers. I do. With masks on, it’s much more difficult, if not impossible, to start a non-essential conversation. What I don’t miss however, are conversations you are coerced into without a choice.
I’m not a barbarian. But I don’t want to get into an inane conversation about the weather, or politics, or Covid or, most especially, my own private business
Take taxi drivers. They are extremely chatty people, and frequently forthright in their views. I am grateful to be taken safely across Dublin city from A to B, but unfortunately for them I’m rarely interested in talking while in a taxi. My mind is on the job I’m going to, or the people I’m about to see, or a million other things. Of course, I am courteous with hellos and this-is-where-I’d-like-to-go, and paying up and saying goodbye. I’m not a barbarian. But I don’t want to get into an inane conversation about the weather, or politics, or Covid or, most especially, my own private business.
Maybe Maeve Binchy was a better person than me, and she enjoyed lovely, fulfilling conversations with taxi drivers, and found their questions charming. I just cut them off at the pass. I don’t want to talk in a taxi. Full stop. But it sometimes takes a while before drivers run out of steam and realise you’re not playing verbal ping-pong – those people who aren’t performing monologues from journey’s start to finish that is – and then they sometimes go on a different tack. The passive aggressive attack tack.
“Not in a good mood?”
“Very quiet, aren’t you?”
“Had a bad day at work?”
There is absolutely nothing positive about the pandemic, but I do feel a mean glimmer of gladness that, by and large, these infuriating attempts of conversations no longer happen in the taxis I take. Driver and passenger are now both wearing masks, and there are plexiglass screens between us, and if the driver does actually try saying anything to me other than confirming the address, I simply say: “Sorry, I can’t hear you.”
As irony would have it, I started writing this column in a new lunch place near me, and subsequently experienced a classic example of the kind of coercive conversation I most detest. It began when I showed my Covid cert, and the guy behind the counter called me “Love”.
“I’ll get you a table now, love.”
If you work in hospitality and you want repeat business, don’t call your customers “love”, “dear” or any of those stupid kind of words
I wanted to bite his head off and hurl it down Camden Street for some dog to play ball with. It is not professional, under any circumstances, to call your female customers “love”.
And on and on it went after that.
“Now love, can I take your order?” I considered asking him please not to call me love, but I’ve been at that rodeo before. It always ends with the person who’s thoughtlessly saying it getting all huffy and offended. Besides, I didn’t want anyone spitting into my food in the kitchen.
“Are you having a nice day off?” I was not on a day off. And it is none of your business what I am doing here.
“What do you think of the menu, dear?” First “love”, and now “dear”. Dear! God! Do you want me to sit here and give the menu marks out of 10? Why are you calling me dear?”
I answered in monosyllables, but he just didn’t get the message. The unwanted questions kept coming. And then: “Am I annoying you, love?”
In my book, if you have to ask someone if you are annoying them, you probably already know the answer. I was by then extremely annoyed. I paid up and left. I’m afraid I didn’t leave a tip, although I almost always do.
What would Maeve Binchy have made of it all, I wondered, as I walked home. She probably would have been more tolerant. Engaged the guy in small talk to see if he could redeem himself. Laughed it all off. She would definitely have left a tip.
Anyway, here’s my five cents worth (since we no longer have one or two cent coins). If you work in hospitality and you want repeat business, don’t call your customers “love”, “dear” or any of those stupid kind of words. On balance, I think Maeve would agree.