I once drew a whole book of cartoons featuring lobsters in various socially awkward situations. One of my favourites was of a lobster trying to get into Princes Park Football Ground (when I drew the cartoon it was the mid 80s and I was living across the road from the ground and I used to go there for last quarters when there was nothing else doing). Anyway in the cartoon, after a goodly wait in the queue, the lobster is confronted by a sign that says “Adults $5, Children $2, Lobsters $27.95. The lobster says “Fair go mate”. Out of the darkness of the box office comes the voice of the attendant. “Listen mate, do you want to see the game or don’t you?” This may not amuse you but I’m afraid it amused me then and it amuses me now.
Anyway many years later I was at Grand Central Station in New York City and talking to a lady behind a grill in a booth selling train tickets. New York is an animated place. It’s got a Jewish sensibility, and though I’m not Jewish my father was Jewish (though not observant or believing) and so half my relatives were Jewish. (Rather more of that side of the family got murdered than my Mum’s side of the family, but then a fair share of them didn’t talk to Mum after she married a Jew and she didn’t speak to them, so that evened things up.)
In New York, as in many cultures – I think this is broadly true across lots of the US and Europe – one can quite vigorously contest things with people – in a good spirit – without things turning nasty. I was sensing this while I was speaking to this lady. There was no train to Philadelphia that evening even though there were three trains to Washington and the relevant train-line went through Philadelphia. So said to her in an animated way “What are you telling me? That there’s no train to Philadelphia when there are three trains to DC?” You can probably imagine Jerry Seinfeld speaking in a similar way, or Woody Allen or someone similar.
She shrugged and sympathised saying in her NY Jewish(ish) accent “Yeah it’s crazy isn’t it?” with a mutually shared bemused and amused resignation. I thought about this conversation and my cartoon and realised that I wouldn’t have said those things in that way in Australia – because had I done so it was very likely the person behind the grill would have got shirty with me “Listen mate, I don’t make the rules around here, now do you want to get to Philadelphia or don’t you?” Now I like Australia a lot, but really this is about the worst place in the world for that kind of low level policing of a certain kind of conformity and hostility to contest, for the alacrity with which people take personal offence and get surly when challenged.
I thought of all this earlier this week when I organised a dinner for ten with a visiting American. When it came to time to pay the bill the waiter insisted that the restaurant wouldn’t split the bill. I told them, starting nicely, that that was going to be too bad for the restaurant because we were only going to pay the bill as a split bill, but that we would make it easy and split it evenly at $50 each. The waiter dug in and finally one of us rang the owner who was a friend. Even at this going over the waiter’s head, he didn’t budge from his demand. Our American visitor was much better than me in this situation and simply politely told the guy the way it was going to be and wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.
Anyway, it occurred to me that the ‘no split bills’ nonsense is another manifestation of this national characteristic of keeping our heads down and conforming with the group. I asked the American visitor if he knew of the practice elsewhere. He said he was unaware of it in the US. I wonder if it exists anywhere else?
Facts, reflections, lobsters please.