My friend Qin, who is Chinese, rang me the other night and after about 30 minutes the time came to say goodbye. I had to go do something (can’t remember what – eat, I think) so I said so. “Okay, bye” she said.
I panicked. “What?”
“Bye” she said.
This was new to me. Normally when the English (I would say British but I don’t know if it’s true of the rest of the UK) say goodbye they enter into a protracted process of drawing things to a close. I first became aware of this when watching The West Wing, and then other US TV shows. In those, a telephone conversation would suddenly end, often without any form of goodbye at all. The last sentence would be spoken and bang the phone would be hung up.
How rude. How very un-English. But how efficient.
I think most of my hang-ups (no pun intended) about the telephone revolve around the whole process of starting up and winding down the conversation. It is almost entirely redundant but you start off with the “how are you?” stuff that takes up a few minutes before you get on to the meat of the conversation. If you’re calling someone you’ve never spoken before you have to give your life story and explain who you are.
But it’s the “good bye” that is particularly draining. We can’t just say “bye” and hang up. When I told Qin I had to go eat I was telling the truth but I was signalling that I would shortly have to go and do this. I wasn’t saying “go away I need to have food”. To the English the signal is like the coda in a piece of music. It says “right, we’re all done but let’s bring things nicely to a halt”. Saying “well I suppose I’d better go let the cat in” is just that – it’s a polite signal that the conversation has run its course, you have nothing new to say and, much as you may love the person on the other end of the line, pretty soon all you’ll be able to do is resort to a bit of heavy breathing cos you’re all out of conversation. The signal is a way of politely saying you know you’re both about to get to the end of the conversation and moving the discussion on to a roundabout way of acknowledging it.
When Qin said “okay, bye” it pulled the rug from under me. “What?” I said. “Bye” she repeated.
If she’d been English she’d have said “ok – what you having?” I’d have said “a ham sandwich” or something and she’d have told me what she’d had to eat, or was planning to eat. We may have riffed on that for a minute, swapped recipes, delighted in each other’s preferences for mustard or mayonnaise, brown bread or white before gently bringing the conversation to a halt. “Okay, I’ll let you get on” is often the preferred conclusion to the coda, the imperfect cadence, if you will, (to keep the music metaphor going) that leads to the final “good bye” and hang up.
It always has to be the person who made the call who “lets the other one go” – the receiver of the call can’t do it.
I tried to explain to Qin the etiquette she was breaking by simply accepting that I had to go and hanging up but she couldn’t get it.
There are similar things in English behaviour: we can’t buy anything without saying thank you several times, for example. I seem to remember hearing a comedy routine on this years ago but can’t remember. Basically it goes like this…
We take our goods to the counter and put them down. “Just those, thanks” we say. The cashier puts everything through and tells us how much. “£5.65, please”. We hand over the cash. “Thanks” we say. We get our change. “Ta”. We gather up the bag. “Cheers”. We head off “See you later. Thanks” We may add another “Cheers, bye” and then we’re off.
I count at least five or six instances of “thank you” or its variants.
It’s hard work being English, sometimes.