After we were seated in the dark, mediocre restaurant in Watertown, Mass., I said, “I’m glad we could get together again, now that we all realize that each time we see each other could be the last.”
My friends nodded briskly.
“Are you gonna try the antipasto?”
“The gnocchi is good.”
“I don’t care what I have as long as it comes with a salad.”
And just like that, the subject of the event that had changed the life of the nation was summarily abandoned.
By and large, that’s been my experience with conversation in New England. When I think of unbounded, unsparing, pulsating conversation, I think of New York: New York apartments, sidewalks, bars, and brunches. I’m a transplanted New Yorker who’s lived in New England for more than thirty years, but the difference between the verbal expression of New Yorkers and New Englanders still astonishes me.
New Yorkers are conversational daredevils. Their candor is of mythical proportions. They talk about the things New Englanders scrupulously avoid: Race, religion, politics, sex, private family matters—and, dare I say, feelings?
Outrageous opinions are welcomed. Raised voices are de rigeur. New Yorkers court controversy and skirt the outer edges of verbal propriety. They force the boundaries of civility—all in the name of lively conversation.
I recall one Thanksgiving at my parents’ house in Queens, New York, during which my mother repeatedly interrupted her cooking to shuttle among scattered groups of guests talking together in the living room. She would have a word with this group, make a suggestion to that group, interject a comment over there. All very innocent-looking.
But, I became suspicious when we noticed that after she left each group, vigorous bickering invariably erupted. Yet the guests stayed through dinner and long into the night, and left protesting that they’d never enjoyed such wonderful conversation in their lives. Our mother commented modestly that she was glad she’d been able to break the ice.
Once while I was walking through midtown Manhattan, a richly dressed woman approached and asked if I thought mothers tried to devour their daughters.
A half hour later, we parted, satisfied that we had fully explored this important, albeit unorthodox, subject.
But in New England, at one of my many jobs, there was a scandal involving dating, divorce, and remarriage within a group of colleagues who all worked together.
I said, “You’re all so civil to one another. If you were New Yorkers, someone would have had to call the police by now.”
One of the parties in the dating, divorce, and remarriage scandal said, “Well, we act as if absolutely nothing has happened. The issue is not mentioned again.”
It’s taken me a while to accustom myself to New England circumspection. But sometimes I am grateful to be with people who know how to ignore the bad and the ugly. And that’s what my New England friends are good at: maintaining order and sanity in the face of profound disruption.
So now, when my New England friends and I meet, I don’t grumble if all they want to talk about is the consistency of the marinara sauce. I willingly abandon my longing for deep conversation and toss in my two cents about the quality of the bruschetta.