I have a friend who doesn’t really “get” Facebook and is always amazed at the amount of what he sees as personal information I post on my page. He is not, however, totally immune, and uses the networking site to promote his book on Lebanese politics, the cover of which is his profile picture.
And that’s it. He doesn’t post photos of his family or his dog. He doesn’t post videos of hapless Mexicans stuck in elevators with zombie children and he certainly doesn’t feel the need to show his “friends” what he had for Sunday brunch.
I am bit more free and easy. I enjoy Facebook (although I still haven’t fallen for the real-time charm of Twitter) and I probably share more about my daily life than is necessary. But even I had to concede that our boundaries are shrinking to ozone layer levels after an encounter at a clothing store at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 3 10 days ago.
A pair of suede loafers had taken enough of my fancy (my friend would say I am oversharing at this point), and while someone rummaged around in the stockroom, there was only myself and a young shop assistant in the shop and she clearly felt the silence was deafening.
She eventually asked where I was flying to. I don’t do banter with strangers, but the question seemed harmless enough. “Er, New York,” I said, picking up a shirt from a pile, hoping that this, and my lack of eye contact, would terminate this sudden line of questioning.
“Wow, cool. How long for?” I really didn’t want to tell her but heard myself mumbling “a week or so”, wishing the shoes would hurry up.
“Oh, great. Business or pleasure?” This was getting a bit fresh but I still I found myself admitting that it was “a little of both but mainly business”.
“Great.” Her second “great” was a tad elongated. The shoes had arrived and she had spotted fresh meat. She bunged me a shoehorn and let me get on with it as a man in his mid-thirties stepped up to the counter. Folding whatever it was he had bought, she began probing into his private life.
He looked like a no-nonsense sort of chap and I braced myself, expecting him to tell her to wind her neck in, but to my surprise he jumped in feet first, revealing that he was heading to Boston for a long weekend, a “mini-break” in fact, a word that elicited an appreciative coo from the sales assistant. In fact, the longer the conversation dragged on he became more engrossed, his body language more suggestive. Whatever it was she had, it was working.
“What’s the big deal?” shrugged my American friend who lives in New York and who works for a global clothing brand. “The girl was doing her job. This is modern retail. You gotta rid yourself of this uptight British attitude.”
But this uptight British attitude is getting rid of itself. Retail Prozac rules. Even at the supermarket in Brighton the cashier will ask me how I am today. Harmless enough you might think, but do they really want to know? Suppose I’ve had a real shocker, what do I tell her? “Actually I not in great shape because my wife and I had a row before I left for work this morning” or “terrible, my boss hates me”.
Of course not. But hang around in the Big Apple long enough and you find you develop new levels of perkiness. You walk into shops and find to your amusement that you greet complete strangers with questions on the state of their general well-being. Everyone’s smiling and happy; only probably they’re not.
But stubborn pockets of old-school restraint are still holding out. The other day, the maître d’ at New York’s King Cole bar at St Regis, faced with a queue at the watering hole, asked if my friend and I would mind sharing our table. I told him we were done and he could have it. Clearly relieved, he came back with my bill in record time and a brisk, not mention grateful, “Thank you Mr Karam”.
Now that’s more like it.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton