From Iceland — The Right to Remain Silent

The Right to Remain Silent

Published September 22, 2006

The Right to Remain Silent

It’s Tuesday night at a quarter to ten and my family and I are strolling down Laugavegur, one of the busiest streets in downtown Reykjavík. My entourage consists of my chipper mother, hungry father, carefree aunt and adventure-seeking grandmother, who are all in town visiting from California. We pass approximately ten people in a five-minute time frame. Of the ten, two people, who happen to be a couple of non-Viking ancestry, say, “Hello” and give us one of those “So you’re obviously American,” smiles. We of course sing a sunny chorus of ‘hi, hello and how are you?’ and keep it moving. The other eight we passed definitely stared but it looked certain that salutations would not be finding their way to our circle. Frankly, my mother was appalled.
My introduction refers to the lack of public interaction also known as “small talk” in any Icelandic, non-alcoholic-induced social forum. As of August 10th I became an official cod out of water on this vast island and have encountered repeated incidents of being in a social setting and feeling as if I had the symptoms of a black plague casualty. In other words, no one made an effort to even meet my gaze, smirk or, needless to say, utter anything that sounded like a greeting. What is the deal? Is my deodorant failing me? Do I resemble the likes of an X-Men mutant? Can somebody please tell me why it is so difficult for Icelanders to engage in conversation with complete strangers?
In California, where my roots are planted, it is not only customary but pretty much a social law to give a “shout out” to any individual one may encounter. It’s possible that the constant temperature of 85°F keeps people more animated than a caffeinated duck at Disneyland. Although most people are in their vehicles, going about 90 mph, talking on their cell phones and trying to sing the latest Beyoncé track while magically holding that Starbucks latte with their free hand, they do find the time to make their daily quota of 15 greetings. On the contrary, in New York, where I’ve lived for most of my adult life, things are dealt with a little differently. When people typically think of New York, they see glitz, glamour and a sea of yellow taxis. In actuality, New York is a river of bitter individuals who walk way too fast and just want to get to their ultimate destination – away from the other 7,999,999 New Yorkers. As a rule of thumb we Yankees fans don’t make eye contact unless it’s completely necessary. However, it’s quite remarkable how many people will approach and entertain you for some pocket change on a 40-minute subway ride.
As a former NYC public school teacher it is in my blood to at least offer some practical tools needed to build this bridge of communication. Debra Fine, a renowned public speaker and author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, can provide some helpful tips to you conversation-inhibited Icelanders:

1. Be the first to say hello and use your name with your introduction.

2. Always ask open ended questions (Asking someone “How do you like Iceland?” does not count.)

3. Stay on top of current events so you’ll always have something to talk about.

Okay, I know this sounds like an English class that definitely should have been ditched; however, engaging in simple conversation could take one further than one might think.
The point of all of this rambling is not to make Iceland a tiny model of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s newfound political dreamland or its paradox, the web of hostility better known as the Big Apple. I simply would like to have a random conversation with a local and walk away feeling as if I was given more than the time of day. The adoption of cosy coffee shops and outside dining is a phenomenal start to culturally redefining “hanging out.” These Ikea-furnished environments foster unplanned connections and enlightened rap sessions. As agonising as it sounds, one will undoubtedly be asked to step out of their comfort zone to participate. Nevertheless, isn’t life full of “first times?”
Nostalgia only partly describes sharing life’s bittersweet moments with an individual you can only recall as “a guy in a yellow shirt with a funky hair cut.” There’s a reason why some people feel totally comfortable divulging their deepest, darkest secrets to complete strangers. Nine times out of ten, you’ll never see them again. On the other hand, a country with a population of 300,000 – you actually may see them again. Hmmm, all this silence is finally beginning to make a little sense.

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Enough. Stop. Now.

Enough. Stop. Now.


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