With so many people I meet, one of our early (if not first) conversations tends to go a bit like this:
They: So where are you from?
Me: The short answer is Europe.
They: But really, where are you from?
Me: *sigh* Born in Bulgaria, legally Austrian, have spent most of my life in the UK now but also lived in other places in Europe. European.
They then proceed to tell me about every Austrian they’ve ever met, and/or that one time they went skiing in Bulgaria, and what they thought of it. If they can’t think of anything to say about Austria and/or Bulgaria in particular, they start fishing around for anything to do with Eastern Europe and/or Germany. “Oh, I met a girl from Romania once…” On a really bad day, Austria or Bulgaria will have been in the news for something. “Oh, isn’t it awful about that Austrian guy keeping his daughter in a basement for years and raping her?”
Then there are some of my favourite/particularly weird variations. There are the Austrian expats who latch on to the “legally Austrian” part and interpret it as “Austrian”. There’s a reason I use “legally” as a qualifyer. We probably don’t have a lot of Austrianness in common. There was also the Austrian in Austria who’d been told by the person who introduced us (who should have known better) that I was “from Bulgaria”. She then proceeded to tell me at great length about her business trips to Bulgaria, completely ignoring the fact that actually I’d been living in the UK for well over a decade at that point and hadn’t been to Bulgaria in about 4 years.
On the rare occasion when I do stick to “European” and refuse to explain further, I also get some interesting comments. Most recently, it was something along the lines of “I wonder if in the future we’ll all say we’re European.” Well, I guess if in the future everyone has a set of life experiences that shape their identity in this particular way, then we will.
What’s perhaps worse is that most of the people I have these interactions with tend to be nice, fluffy, generally left-leaning types. None of them are EDL or BNP supporters, or even UKIP or Tory voters.
I totally get what people are trying to do: they’re trying to keep the conversation going and they’re trying to establish rapport by finding something they have in common with me. That’s how smalltalk works and that’s why it’s so often ghastly – you’re extrapolating from tiny pieces of information to try and build a connection with someone. What these comments actually achieve is basically a microaggression. Let me give you some examples of how some of them translate in my head:
“I went to Bulgaria on holiday once. It was lovely/grey/strange/I don’t remember much of it.” – “I think of one of the complex places that has shaped your identity solely as a holiday destination. My opinion of it is important.”
“Oh, I work with lots of Austrians. They are lovely/not German/German.” – “I am sure you are just as lovely/German/not German as all these other Austrians I’ve had brief interactions with. My opinion of Austrians is important.”
“I met a girl from Romania once. She was lovely/strange/Eastern European.” – “My knowledge of Eastern European geography, politics and culture is non-existent. My opinions on the subject are important.”
“Oh, isn’t [inevitably misreported newsworthy event in Austria/Bulgaria/Eastern Europe/Germany] awful/interesting/strange?” – “I vaguely pay attention to mainstream media and form all my opinions of things I know nothing about based on that. My opinions are important.”
“Oh, you’re Austrian/Bulgarian!” – “I asked you a question and couldn’t be bothered to listen to the answer.”
“Oh, aren’t we all European?” – “I cannot conceive of the set of life experiences that have shaped your identity and I think you’re just saying this for the attention. My opinion is important.”
Congratulations, you’ve just killed any rapport you may have been trying to establish. If you’re lucky, I will nod and smile at you inanely and move the conversation on – or go talk to someone else. On a bad day, I may decide to subject you to some of my opinions of your country. They have been formed over the course of a decade and a half of living, studying and working here. Your media is racist. Your housing stock and transport infrastructure would have greatly benefited from being flattened in the Second World War and rebuilt from scratch. What on earth made you think it was a good idea to have carpet in your bathroom? And while we’re on bathrooms, seriously, have you not heard of mixer taps? Other foreign inventions you may wish to consider include salad dressing, proportional representation, and Leibniz’s notation.
If you want to save yourself that conversation here are some ideas. If my origin story is really something you wish to pursue in conversation, there is no shame in admitting that you know very little about Austria or Bulgaria or other places where I’ve lived. “You know what? I’ve only been there on holiday. What’s it really like?” is a perfectly good conversation starter. “You’re European? What kind of experiences led you to identify that way?” is not half bad. “Legally Austrian, you say? What’s the story there?” That’ll do. “That’s cool. I’m from this tiny village in Wales and this is what things are like where I come from.” That’s pretty interesting, and might highlight points of difference that we can bond over much more successfully than an imagined shared experience of parts of Europe you know nothing about. If in doubt, move the conversation on. We can talk about your job, your hobbies, my hobbies, how we’ve both found ourselves at this event and what we think of it – plenty of options there.
Extrapolating and trying to find points of commonality is how smalltalk works. But maybe we should move beyond smalltalk. We might all learn something from the experience.