When one visits a foreign country for an extended period of time, it is only natural that one will eventually have to go through the ordeal of meeting new people in this unfamiliar environment. Customs may different. Behavior that, to an American, may seem entirely appropriate and indeed, even polite, may seem unkempt or merely strange to the observant Briton. Kate Fox describes a societal concept prevalent in England which she calls “Grooming Talk” as a means of obtaining information about another person in a circumlocutious manner.
Fox asserts that, to the British, it is something of a breech of etiquette to offer up one’s personal information to quickly, including one’s name. As she would tell you, explicitly asking for one’s name or inquiring as to their profession, place of residence, marital status, or any other piece of personal data is evidently impolite. She suggests using “grooming talk” to gradually accumulate modest amounts of information and then to make the inquiry in the form of an interrogative statement. This is allegedly British social orthodoxy.
My experiences thus far in meeting new people lead me to question this assertion as a universally-held social point. Depending on the context in which I’ve met various individuals, this concept of “grooming talk” has and hasn’t been prevalent. When first arriving at my internship for example, the context was slightly different as my name was already known to the staff. I was greeted with a form a “grooming talk” as the interrogative statement made an appearance. “I assume you’re Ben, the new intern correct?” was my welcome to the office. In a change of direction however, the pretense of this grooming talk was dropped in favor of very direct questions about my background including my areas of study, personal interests, and experiences in London thus far. This was certainly a far cry from the mandatory bashfulness and awkward disposition demanded by Fox.
Outside of work, the use of this “grooming talk” seems to vary with age. While as an initial means of beginning a conversation, grooming talk seems to quick disappear from the conversation with younger individuals in favor of a less subtle frankness. An early excursion to a pub in the first week saw a table of local college-aged girls engage me in conversation, initially on the pretense of my evident foreign status which they inferred from hearing my accent. Quickly however, they dropped all subtlety and simply asked a flurry of direct questions while freely offering up their own personal information.
Mirroring this disuse of “grooming talk” amongst the young, is its prevalence amongst older individuals. While touring Scotland, our tour guide seemed intent on following Fox’s guidelines to the letter. Fascinated by the abundance of historical knowledge in his possession, I spoke with him at length regarding the Scottish Wars of independence and exercise tact just to learn where he studied at University. While perhaps my sample populations may be skewed in that, in the case of the tour guide and my supervisor, names were presented earlier, it does seem to me that there exists a clear dichotomy between the social practices of the younger and previous generations with regards to “grooming talk”.