Ian McMillan: How to converse in the land of nod

  • There’s a bloke spouting off to his wife about some arcane point of Rugby League law as he has done every day for the 30 years of their marriage.
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People who are used to stating the blindingly obvious as though it’s profound (I include myself in this cohort) always say a conversation only works if there are two people involved; one person speaks, one listens, then the other speaks and the other listens, from A to B and back to A in a stately dialogue-dance.

Except in Yorkshire, of course. Most Yorkshire conversations, in my wide-ranging experience, involve one speaker and one nodder. The nodder can try to speak if they like, but I reckon they’d be better off nodding or, at a pinch, shaking their head or, in extreme situations, shrugging because there’s no point in them trying to join in.

The Yorkshire conversation really boils down to somebody telling somebody something and the other person taking it in like a sponge. Indeed, a lot begin with the phrase “I’ll tell thi summat…” and then the person who’s being talked just to has to sit back and think of Drighlington until the word-storm passes.

It seems to be in the DNA of people from Yorkshire to have an aversion to the normal rules of conversation. Let’s have a look at this lot in this crowded small-town market somewhere in one of the Ridings, talking and listening and nodding and not talking and not listening and shaking their head.

There’s a bloke spouting off to his wife about some arcane point of Rugby League law as he has done every day for the 30 years of their marriage. At first glance she appears to be listening and to the casual observer she could appear to be joining in. Just watch closely: he rabbits on, his voice powerful and rising with indignation at some imagined sporting slight. She tuts. He carries on. When her husband takes a breath to marshal his thoughts for the next diatribe, she tuts. He thinks that by doing this she is agreeing with him, but in fact she’s just taking no notice of him but inserting the tuts like little conversational hooks that will drag him to the next sentence that she won’t listen to either. It’s a breath-taking skill, and one which has taken decades to hone to perfection. Tut.

This couple are old hands compared with young lovers at the other end of the market; well, I say “lovers” but to the lay observer they seem to be in the aftermath of a huge argument. In fact, the seasoned Yorkshire Conversation Observer (that is, me) can tell that they’re more or less grumbling along as usual. The woman says: “Tha what?” and he doesn’t reply, just makes a tiny pursing movement with his lips. She says: “Well, I think it’s reyt” and he doesn’t reply, just gives an almost imperceptible nod. She says: “I didn’t believe it at first” and sensitive recording equipment would be able to note a miniscule raising of the right eyebrow. These people are having a conversation, it’s just not that obvious.

These are only two examples of Yorkshire Conversations. There are loads more: threats, backchat, Dog Latin and The Conversation Conducted Entirely In One Sided Elvis Songs. That’s rare, though. I’m all shook up.

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