Perfect civility

I think I’ll never get used to this culture of small talk in the USA and in Europe. Especially in central Europe. “Good Morning! And how are you today?” and “Have a good weekend! Talk to you soon!”

Why do they do this? Do they mean it? I guess not. It feels very cold and clinical- sometimes the ‘small talker’ is already busy with their phones as I start to respond, like as if they didn’t expect to receive a reply in the first place. I’ve even talked to a few who made faces or stared at me incredulously for continuing the conversation.

As a very old-fashioned person, I find this very strange and additionally it feels totally useless. Why do I need to smile brightly to let people around me know that I don’t hate them? You are supposed to have that little bit of trust in your fellow human beings, aren’t you? My friend Malini’s ex-husband has a very interesting theory for this; he says that any day it is better to smile and wish people and not mean it than to go around with an impassive face that buries a good heart inside.

But then Gautam has been living outside India for more than 20 years now. Malini and I both feel this smiling and small talking business is hypocritical.

I will end with a little story that I read a long time back. A Bengali writer called Sayed Mustafa Ali writes it, and the name of the story is, ‘The Perfect Civility’. It goes (somewhat), like this:

“I was staying for some time in the south Indian city of Madras. It was hot and muggy, and all I could do in the afternoon was lie down and take a long siesta. My bedroom window overlooked a street tap. All day long the girls from the neighborhood came to collect water from this tap.

One afternoon, the heat was stifling, and I woke up suddenly. I parted the curtains to look out. There was hardly anyone in the lane. The tap was deserted save for one girl who was filling up a brass vessel with water.

The girl was done in five minutes. But try as hard as she might, she just could not budge the huge brass vessel. She wanted to raise it to her head and support it there so that she could walk away with it, but it was just too heavy.

The girl was still struggling with it when a rickshaw appeared at the end of the lane. The rickshaw puller came straight to the tap. He was perspiring, and wanted to drink some water. As he stopped, he came face to face with the struggling girl.

No words or smiles passed between them. They didn’t need to, did they? As human beings, isn’t it part of our daily task to help others, just as it is to breathe? So the man raised the heavy vessel to the girl’s head, and the girl walked away without a word or even look of appreciation. The rickshaw puller didn’t seem to mind. He had four or five fists full of water, washed his face, and went his way.

This is what I call the perfect civility.”

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