Yesterday I was at the grocery contemplating the phenomenon of Christmas pudding, a tradition that has survived modern concerns about hygiene, and an overall improvement in the gastronomic desires of the average Brit. I have never been offered a slice of the heritage dessert, but it is sold everywhere at this time of year, along with mince pies. Whatever they are.
Dimly, I perceived that the woman scanning my groceries was talking to me.
"I like your lipstick," she said. "It suits you."
I stared in shock, looked around for assistance. How to reply? My dusty, trivia clogged mind creaked and churned looking for an answer.
It took great effort to find the corresponding file and force myself to comply with the appropriate social etiquette: I smiled and said "Thank you!"
My brain balked because I do not understand the motivation behind the comment. For the most part, I'm just not paying attention. I don't know or care how other people look, so why would I want to hear what anyone thinks of me?
I did try to learn how to give and accept compliments, make casual conversation, flirt. I even took lessons (see Foment, years 2006-08). But I failed, flunked out, gave it up as a bad business. The intricacies of Ladychat will remain, forever, a profound mystery.
This might have proved a liability if I lived in my homeland, where a veneer of social grace is obligatory. When I visit the states I am baffled by the constant murmur of comment and compliment, a nonstop stream of strangers talking at or around me. Where did I buy my glasses, where did I get my shoes? I like your hair, that is a great scarf. . . it just never ends, and as far as I can tell, it isn't valid or true. Half the time people say stuff because they are supposed to, not because they mean it.
In the states, I often respond with a furrowed brow because I am trying to parse what is happening. Does the person have a tendency to burble, do they want something, do they mean it? Wtf?
In the UK, my delayed reaction time is normal, because the experience is so rare. It takes extraordinary effort for a British person to comment on anything at all aside from the weather. Compliments are therefore sincere, heartfelt, a gift - and just as worrisome to the sender as the receiver. We're an awkward nation. We blink and writhe.
When my daughter catches me acting gawky and dismissive she pokes me and says "that was a compliment! Say thank you!" When I have one of these encounters in the company my son, he just sighs and says "sorry that happened, mom."