Recently overheard in Madal Bal
Madal Bal, an international chain of giftware stores of Swiss origin recently opened its doors for the first time here in New Zealand, a small shop on Auckland’s Takapuna beach managed by Budhsamudra, also known as the seller of fantastic tales on Radio Sri Chinmoy’s Inspiration-Sounds —and one of my flatmates.
As we ate pizza this evening: $6.95 a pie, no-coupon permanent special won out of court by litigious “kosher” housemate, we swapped tales of customers; admittedly his were more fantastic, seeing as how I now mostly work from home, although one of these days I will commit a few stories to paper from my many years as a “Postal Delivery Officer.”
(Here's a quick one for starters—anyone who thinks that something written on a postcard is private is insane—all postie’s read postcards, and in fact love them—they’re a highlight of a mostly mundane job, and good ones get shared around the office before being delivered!)
Apparently a customer walked into Madal Bal recently, and in the middle of making a sales pitch come small-talk, Budhsamudra, who is currently running the store single-handedly and thus unable to be independently verified, asked her how her day was going...
“Oh not so good actually. I’m here on holiday with my boyfriend and his mother just died. We don’t know when we’re going home now...”
Budhsamudra didn’t miss a beat:
“Really Madam—well you’ll be pleased to know we’re open seven days a week, should you have some time to kill.”
Actually that was my proposed reply. Budhsamudra was of course—and unusually—speechless. The customer it seems still completed their purchase. Therapy via retail?
If that sounds bad enough, another customer came into the store, also unaware of the golden rule of small talk—“DON’T TAKE IT LITERALLY!”
“And hello Madam, and how is your day going today?”
enquired Budhsamudra politely, no doubt hoping that somebody was finally going to buy the $200 hand-carved Balinese wooden screen already gathering dust in the corner of the store several weeks after opening.
“Terrible actually,” she replied, “my mother died today.”
Budhsamudra goes in for the kill:
“Perhaps the black crockery set then? An elegant, understated choice...”
If only—now THAT would have been worth seeing!
In Japan small talk is more than an art, it is a required form of conversation dictated by when, where and whom you are speaking to, polite, unspoken codes as to expected behaviour that avoids unpleasantness and directness. For example, being invited to stay for dinner by your host actually means the unspoken “It is time for you to go home as we are going to have dinner now.”
I’m of mixed views about this—sharing both an Eastern sensibility to avoid humiliation or insult of others, but also valuing the integrity and honesty that Western directness of intention can—with judicious use—bring.
In my many years of delivering mail, letterboxes (and cats and dogs) were almost always preferable to their owners, precisely because they didn’t engage in small-talk—which isn’t to say that some postie’s didn’t grow frustrated with “street-recievers” as they are called in the trade, on occasion smashing them apart after one too many cut finger (the phrase “Going Postal” is more correct than many realise).
What most people don’t understand when they say to a postie “Nice day today” (on sunny days) or “I wouldn’t like your job today!” (on rainy days) is that it is quite probably the 10th time that day someone has made the same observation (young writers—don’t expect original observations on life by joining the postal service), and most posties quickly run out of original ways of answering the same piece of small-talk—occasional psychotic episodes aside. Let’s face it, visiting the same letterboxes day after day isn’t the most original, stimulating occupation, and in the face of mind-numbing repetition the average postie is desperate for anything out of the ordinary to occur, anything other than more of the same: “If those are bills you can keep them!”