Family & Education

When it's just too early to talk

If Susan Reuben ignores you on the morning commute, the school run or at the doctor's surgery, don't take it personally. We've all been there...


There aren’t many things that will persuade me to leave the house without first drinking a cup of coffee; but the other day, I needed to see the doctor and was keen to beat the queue for the walk-in clinic. So at 7am I rolled out of bed and straight into the car (only pausing briefly to swap my pyjamas for something that could approximately be described as clothes).

When I got there, a line of people had already formed down the front path, waiting for the doors to open. I glanced at the man standing in front of me and then, realising he seemed familiar, looked again and realised it was one of my niece’s friends. “Oh hi!” I said. “Hi,” he replied, and we both relapsed into silence. There was no way that either of us, at crack of dawn, pre-coffee, and quite probably feeling unwell, were prepared to make further conversation.

No sooner had the doors opened and I’d found a seat in the waiting room, than another familiar face appeared — this time, a dad from my kids’ school. We greeted each other monosyllabically and that was the end of that. Except it wasn’t, because next, a woman from my synagogue came in. We had a similarly fulsome exchange before becoming very interested in staring at our phones.

These were all people I’d had lovely chats with in the past and no doubt would, again, in the future. Just not here; not now.

When I used to commute to work, this problem arose all the time. I had a real horror of meeting an acquaintance on the tube platform and being obliged to talk to them all the way into the centre of London, all the time knowing that they were (almost certainly) equally dismayed by the situation. The trick to avoid this was on no account to meet anyone’s eye. I’d unfocus my gaze — as if trying to see the 3D image in one of those Magic Eye books — and walk down the platform, unable to see anything clearly at all. This did mean I ran the risk of bumping into stationary objects or wandering on to the track… but needs must.

Occasionally, and utterly unforgivably, someone would spot me and hail me over. For the love of God, I would think when this happened, this isn’t a bleedin’ cocktail party. Please stop behaving like a pleasant, gregarious human being and join the morose and anti-social hordes around you who understand how to behave properly.

Lest you wonder how I manage to make or keep any friends at all, I do enjoy a good chat under different circumstances. At kiddush, for example, I tend to end up so busy talking that I forget to go and get any food until it’s too late and all cleared away. My husband says I am a blundering amateur. “You need to go and get the food while you’re talking,” he tells me. But I’m always so excited to catch up with my friends that I consistently forget.

In fact, I see kiddush as an exercise in how to have the maximum number of conversations in the shortest possible time; and in particular, how to balance nattering comfortably to friends, finding specific people to check how they are, and welcoming strangers… all while being regularly interrupted by children demanding to know if Gaby can come for a playdate and please can you pour me some apple juice and when are we leaving?

It’s hardly surprising, under these complex social circumstances, that I sometimes forget to eat anything. It’s the “welcoming strangers” piece of kiddush that’s the trickiest. The challenge in my enormous shul — where no one knows everyone — is to spot the strangers in the first place. It’s entirely possible to go up to someone and ask if it’s their first visit, only to discover that they sit on Council and have been here every Shabbat for 25 years. 
As a consequence, I don’t talk to unfamiliar people nearly as much as I should, and then feel guilty that I don’t try harder.

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