Are you good at small talk? Some people are naturals, others, like me, definitely are not. Take my partner, who has the knack, in just about any situation, of engaging with strangers in what can become very stimulating conversations. Yet some social situations can be challenging, even for him. One that comes to mind is, in a stunning somersault of logic, being held personally responsible for the Holocaust because he is Argentine and because the Argentine and German militaries have links, which it turns out date back to the time of Bismarck, when the German military was the most efficient in the world and served as a model for others, not just Argentina. Hitler and his henchmen we spotty pre-teens at the time.
A conversation between Prince William’s godmother, Lady Susan Hussey, and Ngozzi Fulani, the British-born founder of Sistah Space, a women’s civil society non-profit, looks like another example. The transcript of the conversation reads less like polite small talk than an interrogation by Lady Hussey. Ms Fulani’s indignation is understandable; she took special umbrage at the term “your people”.
I can relate to that, not because of my skin colour, but my accent. I, too, am British, but born in Australia; as a “colonial”, the insinuation of convict origins is ever-present. I have conjured a couple of stock, light-hearted responses that mock both the questioner and me. We chuckle, and then have a good-humoured exchange.
Lady Hussey’s conversation was at best inexcusably inept, especially so for someone who is supposed to command better social graces. Ms Fulani for responded frostily, which embarrassed Lady Hussey and, by extension, the royal family. She also drew attention to herself and her charity. Fair enough.
But she also lost a golden opportunity to show Lady Hussey and everyone else who has the better manners. Instead, in reacting defensively, she confirmed the very prejudices she was bristling about, to the point that some people may now hesitate before engaging in conversation with someone of a different skin colour for fear of inadvertently causing offence.
Questions about where someone “comes from” may or may not be about the colour of their skin or their accent. Let’s not rule out the possibility that Lady Hussey was genuinely interested in learning about the circumstances that brought Ms Fulani’s family to Britain: after all, upping sticks and moving to the other side of the world is not something you do on a whim, and the story might be very enlightening. Many people quite enjoy talking about it, too. In case you’re interested (but you may not be!), records show that at least some of my “people” came to Australia as settlers from Ireland early in the nineteenth century, when both the journey and the destination were very risky and not for the faint-hearted. I can’t say more, because I don’t know more than that, though I’d certainly like to.
There were many ways of responding to lady Hussey’s clumsy conversation without pigeon-holing yourself as yet another victim. You might, for example, ask about Lady Hussey’s background: And you, Lady Hussey, where do your people come from?