RICHARD GLOVER July 14, 2012
Illustration: Simon Letch
Society becomes nastier by the day, according to a million newspaper articles, but the real scourge, surely, is the rise of competitive niceness. Consider the tussle over who'll pay after a visit to the coffee shop: "I've already paid." "Well I'm paying you back.'' "I don't want your money." "Here, I am putting it in your shirt pocket." "I'll just take it out and leave it here on the table, what happens to it then is your business …"
All this over $3.10 for a soy latte.
Then there are battles with the neighbour over which of you gets up early and brings in the other's bin. Or the "no, you first" hand gestures between motorists squeezing through a chicane. Or the painful longueur at the lift as one person says ''after you'', then the other says ''no, I insist'', then the first smiles and says, "Well, only because the rule is age before beauty."
I suppose it's pleasant enough. But do we really have time for this sort of stuff in our thrusting modern economy?
Most workplaces are shared with about 20 people. In a day's work, wandering back and forth from the mail room, you pass the same people again and again. Etiquette, however, insists upon a greeting each time, a whole orchestra of sounds, from the first trilled "good morning" at 8.30am, to the jokey "hello again" at 8.35am, to the somewhat tight-lipped "hi" at 8.40am, deteriorating into a series of strangulated squawks, a high-pitched "argghh", followed by a low-pitched "um", then a middle-pitched "eh", as if you were collecting notes towards a jazz record.
Spotting each other on the bus chugging home, by all means treat yourself with a jaunty "you again!", but can we leave it at that? When we first meet at 8.30, can we consider ourselves familiarised for the full eight hours?
Meanwhile, the whole business of fetching the coffee has become a nightmare. It starts with an innocent "I'm going for coffee, anyone else want one?" and ends with six people brandishing banknotes at each other, like the circle of guns in Reservoir Dogs, the voices climbing over each other in disputation, "let me", "no, it's my turn", "you bought them Tuesday", until victory, naturally, is achieved by the one who first offered to walk to the coffee shop.
She heads off, someone yells "can you also get me a danish?", and the whole deal collapses, money now changing hands, proving that even niceness has its limits. (In Sydney, the limit right now: we'll shout $3.10 for a coffee; but no way $5.40 for the coffee and the danish.)
Of course, things get even worse once you leave the office and enter into the world of Sydney's suburbs. There are neighbourhood barbecues that are now impossible to leave. The hosts certainly want everyone to go home, and the guests are more than ready to leave, it's just a matter of finding the words that allow this mutually yearned-for outcome to occur.
"We must make a move." "But you'll stay for one last drink, and perhaps a last slice of cake? It's Andrea's mother's recipe." "Well, it does look good." That's the start of a process still going at 3am, the weary hosts stumbling forward with yet more remnants of cake; the dishevelled guests spooning in another plateful of the now-repulsive confection, washed down with the warm chardonnay left at the bottom of the cheapest bottle.
"Really, we should think about ringing the cab." "But it's only 4am!"
I wouldn't be surprised, in the depths of east Turramurra, or the Amish belt of northern Wahroonga, if there are dinner parties that commenced in 1972 and are still going strong, neither host nor guest wanting to be so rude as to call it quits. You could stumble in and find them all still wearing their safari suits and muumuus, prodding with a well-used Splade at their 8495th slice of pavlova, still wondering whether Gough Whitlam made it across the line on December 2.
"It might be time to leave," one of the guests might finally mumble, realising it's been 40 years. That's when the hosts will bring out their required lines: "Just one more cup of coffee for the road." Or: "This last slice of pavlova has your name on it." Or: "If you eat this last sausage, we can wash the platter."
It's not only the north shore. In other parts of Sydney, Greek, Italian or - worse - Iranian aunties may be involved. Warning: DO NOT ENTER THESE HOUSEHOLDS. Well, not unless you have acquired a medical certificate limiting the amount of food you may accept.
Even then, you'll get disputation. "This medical certificate of yours … I notice it doesn't explicitly mention baklava, and, really, baklava is a health food, it has no calories, it has nothing bad in it, and you've only had 47 slices so far, which is really unfair to my grandmother, whose recipe this is, and she always said it was the 48th slice which was the best, so if you just hold still and open wide … "
Really, there's no good fighting. We must square our shoulders, gird our loins and smile in the face of the niceness epidemic.
More cake anyone?