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Sense and sociability

With the fear of missing out being replaced by the fear of being invited anywhere, what are the new rules for the less-than-sociable?

Cartoon by Chris Slane

For social animals, we are remarkably conflicted about socialising. From a night at the pub to a sumptuous wedding, the default setting of generations has been that social gatherings are the heart of human existence. Yet somehow, introversion has become the new black. A growing number of people now refuse to believe it’s antisocial to be … unsociable.

FOMO – the fear of missing out – is meeting FOBIA – the fear of being invited anywhere.

Yes, we’re conflicted, but at least we’re becoming more honest. It’s becoming okay to admit that not everybody likes parties; that for many people they’re things to bear for the sake of others, rather than for genuine enjoyment. And although we want friends and colleagues to include us in their plans, we hate it when they ring rather than text, or worse, drop by – “Hi! Hope you’re not busy!”

The internet is helping rewrite the rules of social success and, even better, social enjoyment. And we can thank – or, if curmudgeonly, blame – social media and the younger demographic.

It’s becoming easier, via text, email, Facebook and the like to signal one’s social needs and limitations. A lot of the new etiquette is founded on the need for consideration in using up other people’s time. Because for most of us, time is a precious commodity, especially down time. Should you really be insulted that people bailed out of your party because they were exhausted after a hectic week? Would you really want a friend to suffer just to make you feel popular?

Old-style niceties such as the thank-you letter are being recast as unnecessarily burdensome. Phone messages and emails that put the recipient under an obligation to reply are starting to be used more sparingly. And it’s definitely becoming okay to ignore or defer calls. Is there anyone more irritating than the person who says wonderingly, “I rang and you didn’t answer your phone!” (And God bless the inventer of caller ID.)

The preponderance of best-selling books on introverts tells part of the story. We are simply not all particularly sociable. Many of us need cave time to replenish our energies and are not just being rude and selfish in eschewing group activities. Even those high on the extroversion scale can struggle with the peculiar mix of intensity and randomness that comes with parties, and the potential for stray tone and nuance in emails. And family gatherings, where most of the participants are familiar, can make even a confident person feel self-conscious, claustrophobic and desperate.


British writer Deborah Ross coined the term FOBIA after diagnosing herself as suffering the antithesis to the much more widely documented FOMO (though she brackets FOBIA with FOBETA, fear of the box-set everyone is talking about).

“I don’t know when exactly I stopped caring what other people were up to and stopped wishing to be included. It may just be a symptom of age,” she confessed recently in the Times.
“The symptoms are as follows:

1. Just the thought of having to go out in the evening will ruin your day, hanging over you like a dental appointment, but one you must attend at night, in the cold and dark, and by public transport because you will probably self-medicate with drink.

2. The moment you hear the daughter of someone or other is getting married, you actually tremble at the prospect of a wedding invite plopping on the mat.

3. The Christmas party season [is] filled with dread because you don’t want to be stood in some corner, boring someone.

4. Having stupidly accepted an invitation owing to some kind of FOMO rush to the head, you then get out of it by pretending your grandmother has died. (My grandmother has died 789 times in the past year alone; she is the gift that keeps on giving.)”

A further hazard of parties is social deafness. With the demographic bubble has come a surge in people who can’t hear a word said to them in the hubbub of a party. A New Zealand media celebrity who suffered some hearing loss after a virus several years ago says his way of coping with being unable to follow party conversation is to say, “I have always found you enchanting!” every time there’s a lull in the conversation. It might not be strictly relevant to the topic, but seems to go over well. Though not so much with men.

The hard of hearing, perversely, often speak more quietly, so not only can they not hear you but you can’t hear them. This isn’t as bad as it sounds, as you can both talk about whatever you want with impunity.

The bookshops and the Kindle store are chocka with self-help books vowing to fix, if not our shameful disinclination to commune with our fellow humans, then at least the awkwardness many of us have about it. Possibly the most often repeated message is that to be a social success you need to make other people feel good.

The most famous illustration has to be Queen Victoria’s impressions after meeting first William Gladstone and then Benjamin Disraeli on the brink of a keenly fought British election. She said she came away from meeting Gladstone believing he must be the most intelligent man in the land. She came away from meeting Disraeli thinking that she herself must be the most intelligent person in the land. Guess who won the election?

In support of this, cosmetics maven Mary Kay Ash used to say everyone has an invisible sign hanging around their neck saying “Make me feel important!”

Actually, many of us have long since changed the message to “I don’t even want to be here, so please just make this painless”.

If the “It’s all about you!” approach to party conversation is taken too far – as in the self-help books that advise gazing deeply into people’s eyes and asking them all about themselves – it can lead to rather terrifying downloading and interrogation and worse, boredom.


For the FOBIA sufferers among us, there is a handy checklist for boringness:

• Have you been talking for more than four minutes without anyone else getting a word in?
• Are you the only person who still has a full plate of food?
• Is there a sudden mass-exodus to the toilets from among your group?
• Is your listener nodding and hmming robotically and scanning the room over your shoulder?

There are also nifty solutions for avoiding known bores: “Well, that’s fascinating, but I mustn’t monopolise you all night”, and “You know, I have to be honest, cricket/permaculture/Scientology isn’t really a thing that floats my boat. I’d hate you to cast your pearls before a swine, because I just won’t understand the half of it.”

At the same time, there’s a growing recognition that being boring at parties is a social handicap deserving some empathy. It’s not uncommon to have unofficial tag-teams of people who sequentially talk with a boring person. Bore rescue is another new and welcome development in social etiquette.

Only beware the old standby of claiming to need a comfort stop. This writer once escaped this way after undergoing a pitiless harangue, only to find the over-talker stationed patiently outside the loo, ready with a “So, I just wanted to finish the points I was making about …”

How to be eloquent

Rhetoric is not dead – it’s all around us, and technology has ensured we need to be artful more than ever. by Mark Broatch

Rather than being dustily redundant, rhetoric – the art of using language effectively, persuasively and entertainingly by way of stylish writing and clever figures of speech – has become more important than ever.

“That’s because we are all required by technology to express ourselves in a single memorable sentence,” says Mark Forsyth, author of several books on language and a world-class pedant. “When I was growing up – I was a schoolchild in the 1980s – I never communicated with anyone by writing. We talked, we phoned each other, we watched television. Whereas now we’re in the age of text, where people do Twitter updates that have to be 140 characters, they update their Facebook status. And what everybody is trying to do is write that one perfect line that expresses how I’m feeling right now. So I think the accidents of technology have made rhetoric way more important, especially to young people.”

Anyway, we all use these figures of speech in everyday life and they abound in our films and on our box sets. We just don’t realise it, Forsyth writes in his latest book, The Elements of Eloquence.

“Fear leads to hatred. Hatred leads to anger. Anger leads to suffering.”

Recognise it? That’s Yoda, using anadiplosis, and it’s “the only memorable line of Star Wars: Episode I”, says Forsyth. Anadiplosis is the repetition of the last word of one clause as the first word of the next, giving both lines more power. Although Yoda’s probably more commonly known for hyperbaton, changing the order of words – “Hear you nothing that I say? Do. Or do not. There is no try.” It’s extremely unusual in English and almost always sounds odd.

These figures of speech survive despite not being taught for 200 years and few knowing their names, Forsyth says. It’s partly because when we do use or hear them, they get remembered.

Then there’s subjectio: suggesting in a question how an argument should proceed – for example, the famous line from Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry: “You’ve gotta ask yourself a question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?” Forsyth notes this quote also includes anthypophora (answering your own question) and erotesis (asking a question with the expectation of a negative answer). And there’s plenty more subjectio in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. “These things work.”

Of course, rhetoric can be used as a way of getting stuff past us, he says. Take chiasmus, creating symmetrical phrases. JFK used it a lot, including “Ask not …” and “Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind”. Since then, says Forsyth, every single US president and candidate has used chiasmus. “Just recently Barack Obama told a group of American veterans, ‘You stood up for your country, now your country must stand up for you.’ If you actually think about that, it’s a complete reversal of presidential policy from JFK, but you don’t notice it – you just notice the beautiful symmetry.

“George Bush jnr’s one was ‘We cannot bring our enemies to justice, so we must bring justice to our enemies’. If you think about that, what’s the difference? But nonetheless, it was a great memorable phrase.”

Shakespeare and his ilk knew this stuff backwards – rhetoric was an essential part of Elizabethan grammar-school education – and it’s part of the reason their writing is so powerful. It can be taught, in the same way that mathematics can be taught – just don’t expect miracles.

“You can’t necessarily be a great mathematician purely through teaching. But you can grasp all the essential principles and you can see what the other people are doing. I will never be able to design a Formula One car, but I’m glad I understand the principles of the internal combustion engine and I don’t think cars work by magic.”

You can even practise it in your everyday talk, as Shakespeare recommended. “I do it all the time. It’s rather like jazz music. Once you’ve done it a few times, it’s there for you. The thing about rhetoric is it’s meant to be an unnatural thing, but once you’ve mastered the technique, you can internalise them and they become natural again.”

To see how readily rhetorical he was, I threw a few lines from films and songs at him, including this from Lorde’s Royals: “But every song’s like:/Gold teeth/Grey Goose/Tripping in the bathroom/Bloodstains/Ball gowns/Trashing the hotel room.”

It uses congeries (a list), isocolon (two sentences structurally the same) and alliteration in the “g”s and “b”s and “tr” sounds. His verdict: “She knows what she’s doing. And even if she doesn’t, she’s got a natural talent.”

“It’s a complete reversal of presidential policy from JFK, but you don’t notice it – you just notice the beautiful symmetry.


Tricks to try

Diacope is a word or phrase repeated after a brief interruption. As in Aliens: “Game over, man. Game over.” Or Austin Powers’ “Yeah, baby, yeah.” Or “Bond. James Bond.”

Hendiadys is taking an adjective and a noun and replacing them with noun and noun, like Sex and the City. “It’s immensely subtle, nobody notices it happening, and yet it’s beautiful for a reason I can’t possibly explain.”

Catachresis, in which a word or phrase is used in a wonderfully different way, is beloved of poets and songwriters. “Dance me to the end of love.”

PG Wodehouse often used transferred epithets: “The astonished piece of toast fell from his hand.”

Litotes is affirming something by denying its opposite, a favourite of New Zealand men. “You’re not wrong there, mate.” Not a bad tactic but don’t overuse it.

Anaphora is starting sentences or clauses with the same word(s) – for example, Churchill’s famous speech: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Parataxis (simple, plain English – for example, Caesar’s “I came; I saw; I conquered”) and hypotaxis (complex, clause-heavy English – for example, James Baldwin’s “When I was around nine or ten I wrote a play which was directed by a young, white schoolteacher, a woman, who then took an interest in me, and gave me books to read, and, in order to corroborate my theatrical bent, decided to take me to see what she somewhat tactlessly referred to as ‘real’ plays”).

“Parataxis is the far more clear and concise version – it makes things simple and it makes things seem simple. Whereas hypotaxis, with all these subordinate clauses, makes you seem an awful lot cleverer, but it makes the world seem more civilised as a result. That’s how Jane Austen ran her novels. It’s not how Martin Amis runs his.”

The old meet & greet

First, the handshake: squeeze as tight as if you’re holding an umbrella. Make eye contact. Stand up straight. Let go after one or two pumps or as soon as you feel the other person’s grip loosen.

Follow the A, R, E rule: your first comment should provide an anchor for the conversation (say, the storm last night), the second should reveal something about yourself (maybe your garden got trashed by the hail?) and the third should encourage a response from the other person (how did his or her property come through the storm?)

Or try an “un-introduction”: ask a question, then drop your name in. “Who was your favourite speaker today? I’m Lisa, by the way.”

Open questions will help make people feel at ease – the House of Windsor special is “Have you come far?” But don’t stay neutral too long – you’ll transmit a beige personality.

If the conversation veers into uncivil territory, turn off your own “attitude” and cultivate curiosity in their point of view.

Great conversationalists listen more than they talk. A well-known experiment is to fix an expectant gaze on a silent person in a group, as if they were about to say something fascinating. In most cases it won’t be long until they speak.

Avoid long stories. You’ll be interrupted. Also avoid monosyllabic responses: there’s nothing like a “yeah” or “nah” to kill a conversation.

How to tell your listeners are losing interest: they reply with monosyllables, random comments, new subjects or silence; their eyes wander or assume a fish-on-slab glaze; they glower, keep twitching their watch or cuffs, or you find yourself repeating yourself. If they start saying “really”, just stop now.

Especially in a work situation, it helps to do a quick prior search of the person’s public info (not their personal Facebook page) to come up with small-talk topics – travel, sport, shared interests, news, the weather are all good. Personal problems are not.

Make a gracious escape by mentioning the passage of time – “Oh, the food’s ready”. Follow up with an excuse and a nicety: “I must top up my drink, it’s been lovely talking with you.”

Sources: It’s the Way You Say It: Becoming Articulate, Well-Spoken, and Clear, by speech pathologist and personal communication coach Carol A Fleming; Smart Talk: The Public Speaker’s Guide to Success In Every Situation, by “The Public Speaker” Lisa B Marshall; The Art of Conversation by Catherine Blyth.

Move over, Miss Manners

Social media and the blurred line between work and life are changing ideas about what’s acceptable, says Catherine Woulfe.

Last year, a sales campaign by chocolate company Ferrero Rocher enlisted bestselling cookbook author Julie Le Clerc to “re-educate Kiwis on etiquette”.

When the host tells you not to bring anything, she decreed, you should definitely bring a thing (fancy chocolate, perhaps). You should turn up within 10 minutes of the set time. You are not to help with the dishes. You must thank the host after the fact: don’t text, email if you must, but a phone call is best for this.

To all of which, this Gen Y-er says: “No. What you are saying is weird and wrong.”

For a new party etiquette is rising. As Keren Phillips, digital strategist at Auckland agency The Common Room, says, you can put it down to generational arrogance – the “me me me” factor – or social media, or the fact that we’re “over-scheduled … stupidly ambitious and in an insanely competitive workforce”. But we’re definitely doing things differently.

Take the thank-you phone call. In 2011, the New York Times noted what we’d all been thinking for years: “Phone calls are rude. Intrusive. Awkward … Phone calls from anyone other than immediate family tend to signal bad news.”

It’s true: in general, younger people don’t call to say thank you. We might flick off an email or a text, but only rarely – which means, when it happens, it’s not just an exercise in etiquette box-ticking.

We’re much more likely to thank hosts by putting something on Facebook, most often a photo that makes them and the party look cool. As Phillips points out, that increases both their social currency and our own.

Slate writer Seth Stevenson went one step further in July, urging readers to “ghost” from parties, rather than hold everyone up with an awkward round of farewells. Don’t bother with goodbyes, he wrote. Just go. Sneak out.

“If there’s a guest of honour, as at a birthday party, I promise you that person is long ago air-kissed out.” The piece racked up more than 100,000 shares on Facebook.

Speaking of which, Gen Y does not, in general, consider setting up events on Facebook trashy, tacky or trivial. It’s convenient and commonplace. Some of us organise our weddings on Facebook, we all RSVP via Facebook, we bail at the last minute – or the next morning – on Facebook. And that’s generally okay. (Unless it’s a wedding, or some other very expensive and important party, in which case it’s best practice to stick to your RSVP.)

Phillips reckons that for most events, clicking “I’m going” (Facebook’s version of an RSVP) is akin to saying, “I like you, we’re friends, I’ll display that friendship by adding your event to the shortlist of things I’ll consider attending this weekend.” “Liking” a post is a long way down the hierarchy and is more like making eye contact.

We all get this. We know many of the previous generations do too, and we try to find a good-mannered middle ground with those who don’t.


Josie Campbell has a public relations job that means she’s at events almost every night. Does she see a generation gap? “Absolutely. I would be much more formal in my communication with someone who was a generation above me. But I can’t assume that. Some of those people are not only more tech-savvy but more relaxed.”

Campbell’s big no-no is public put-downs about a party or event. It hurts feelings, she says, it’s not classy and in a small country it’s a dumb career move.

But for a generation of me me mes, we have surprising empathy for one another. We understand that work, life and back episodes of The West Wing often get in the way; we understand that some people simply don’t like to party and will tend to back out late or bow out early.

Introversion, in fact, is becoming cool: according to a recent Huffington Post piece, introversion is now considered a desirable character trait, perhaps because such people tend to despise small talk and “networking” in favour of more authentic exchanges.

And authenticity’s what we’re all chasing. We don’t have time to veneer our socialising, to leave our phones on silent or to pretend we’re having an awesome time when we’re dying inside. Instead, we’re comfortable saying, “I have to deal with this urgent work thing”, or “This crowd is making me really panicky, I’m off.”

So we’ve abandoned some of the social niceties set down by Le Clerc and her ilk. So what? We’re all still happy and hanging out, and we’re not hacking each other off too much.

As Campbell says, etiquette behaves much like language: we adjust it based on context, perception and audience. And it evolves.

The internet has meant the invention of online etiquette, and Gen Y seems to be much better at this than people who bring Ferrero Rocher to dinner parties.

We never put photos of kids online without asking the parents, for example. We’re careful not to share incriminating or embarrassing photos of our friends, and we’re constantly aware that Big Bosses could be watching. We know the limits and the unspoken rules of online debates.

In summary, says Phillips, “we’re a bit rude if you’re measuring us with ye olde yardstick, but we’re all doing it the same, so no one cares. Old people take too much time to do everything. There’s no difference between IRL [in real life] and social media in people’s minds any more. And no one wears watches, so our standards are lower.”

For a guide to using social media, click here.

The accent of man

Doing a good foreign accent takes hard work, but there are short cuts, a vocal coach tells Mark Broatch.

Is one of your party tricks to tell a joke in a foreign accent? How do you do it? Do you even know?

Kirstie O’Sullivan, who teaches voice at The Actors’ Program in Auckland, says nailing a believable accent is all about getting every aspect right: sound, rhythm, stress, pitch. These are abilities you can improve, but you have to put in the hard yards.

O’Sullivan, who did post-grad voice studies at Nida in Sydney after Toi Whakaari and played Robin Stokes on Shortland Street, typically works with actors to give them a foundation to do any accent. “I don’t actually teach them the accent – though we do look at those – but I give them the tools to deconstruct the accent and put it all back together again for themselves.”

When it comes to American or Australian accents, O’Sullivan, who focuses on British ones, calls in Jacque Drew and Alex Whitham. “We’ve got a lot of New Zealand actors who are auditioning for American television screen projects and also Australian projects.” Although foreigners find it hard to differentiate between New Zealand and Australian accents, we can identify each other within a few words. Whitham often gets actors to dial back their Australian accents from “Super Ocker”.

“Standard American, for a lot of the things being cast here in New Zealand, will get an actor a good long way. But it has to be a really, really good one. Not just a wing-it one.” If actors aren’t confident in an accent, it will sound lighter and more tense and can slip out of their grasp, particularly in moments of heightened emotion.

To do either accent, says O’Sullivan, New Zealanders usually have to loosen their jaw. We carry more tension there, which affects the sound. She has taught Australians to do a Kiwi accent. It can be hard for them, as our vowel sounds tend to be in the middle of mouth and articulation is less pronounced. Where Scottish, for example, is very muscular, “ours is one of the least”.

O’Sullivan has some tips to improve your foreign accents:

Tune your ear. Listen to native speakers. Lots of real people talking in their local accents can be found on YouTube, bl.uk, dialectsarchive.com and accenthelp.com (which charges for each accent it helps you learn). If you’re really keen, O’Sullivan says, interview and record people from the area. Make sure you have the right model – British accents vary hugely in just a few kilometres, between gender, age and class, rural and urban, educated and not, and they change over time. Even the Queen no longer speaks the same Received Pronunciation. Prince William now leans towards “Estuary”, whereas wife Kate is much more “cut-glass RP”, she says.

Get connected with the environment, its historical, cultural, educational and sociographical aspects, to get a full picture of how the accent has formed. It will help get the “vibe” of an accent – “where it sits in the body”. O’Sullivan says an East Ender has a quite different vibe and vocal attack to Her Majesty.

Get the foundations right. O’Sullivan provides a ready “lexical set” of vowel sounds and their relationships with each other. She recommends How to Do Accents, by Edda Sharpe and Jan Haydn Rowles. Written for actors, it talks about the mouth “zone” the accent is formed in, tone, direction – where the voice is heading, and the “setting” of the face.

Get really specific. Note subtle differences between your own accent and the one you are trying to do. Master vowel and consonant changes and different vocabulary. R-pronouncing accents (called rhotic) can be tricky, as many Kiwis want to insert extra Rs such as FAR-ther for father.

But if you haven’t the time or patience, and just want to tell a funny joke, there are short-term tricks. O’Sullivan says it helps to have a “springboard sentence” – a phrase or two in the accent that you’ve memorised to connect you with its sound shapes and rhythms.

UK comedian Jimmy Carr reckons for a Liverpool accent you can work from “I want soom chicken and a can o’ coork”. To do a Newcastle accent, you simply have to master the way they say “roller coaster, pooper-scooper, oompah loompah, Kawasaki”. Hint: roller coaster is pronounced more like rorla corsta.

O’Sullivan suggests going to the extreme and adopting the physicality. “Do the full Billy Connolly.” You have to change your muscle memory. Sustaining an accent is a practice and art, she says, so read aloud in the accent, practise while doing the dishes or try it out by ordering at the petrol station.

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