David Thompson:

At the time, I was struck by the presumption – the belief that everyone present would naturally agree – that opposition to Brexit and a disdain of Trump were things we, the customers, would without doubt have in common. That the poem’s sentiment of friendship and community was being soured by divisive smugness escaped our local academic, whose need to let us know how leftwing he is was apparently paramount. The subtext was hard to miss: “This is a fashionable restaurant and its customers, being fashionable, will obviously hold left-of-centre views, especially regarding Brexit and Trump, both of which they should disdain and wish to be seen disdaining by their left-of-centre peers.” And when you’re out to enjoy a fancy meal with friends and family, this is an odd sentiment to encounter from someone you don’t know and whose ostensible job is to make you feel welcome.

I’ve fortunately managed to avoid encountering bores in real life who find nothing more fascinating or fit for casual conversation than their political opinions. Most members of the species are found in an online habitat. I did think it odd when I bought a bookcase from an estate sale where the woman running things proudly wore a “Trump 2020: Make Liberals Cry Again” shirt while doing business; as one old bookseller once told me, “The worst thing you can have in this line of work is an opinion.” I would think that applies anytime you want to part people from their money.

But I did see one funny example while I was at a library sale in Cincinnati last year. An elderly volunteer was arranging books on one table and making friendly chitchat to me as she went along. I was focused on what I was doing, so I mainly responded with pleasant sounding “hmms” and “ahhs.” She picked up one book — I forget the title — which prompted her to say to me in a tone of amazed disbelief, which she expected me to share: “Do you know, I just found out that 80% of [whichever nearby township/county] voted for Trump in 2016?”

“Huh!” I responded, in a tone which I hoped struck the precise note of, “I heard what you said, but I didn’t find it surprising or interesting enough to respond with any substance, and besides, I’m kind of occupied here at the moment. Still, I appreciate your efforts at being sociable, so I will make a minimal effort to play along.”

A man next to me, who apparently knew the lady, leaned in and said good-naturedly, “Well, I’m one of ’em!”

This set her on her heels a bit. “Oh! You…did?”

“Eh, what can I say?”

The man across the table leaned over and said to him, “There’s a lot more of us than they think!”

The conversational spirit was grievously wounded now. Flustered, the volunteer, tried to retreat to square one. She picked up one of Thomas Friedman’s books and tried to talk it up a bit: “I’ve always found him to be a thought-provoking writer!”

The woman on my other side glanced at it and said with brusque finality, “Hmph. He writes for the New York Times.” And with that dismissive blast of buckshot, the conversational spirit fluttered dead to the ground. The poor volunteer went back to arranging books in silence. I felt bad for her. She wasn’t obnoxious or tone-deaf; she just happened to be surrounded by friends and neighbors with political sympathies she’d never suspected. There are dangerous undercurrents out there in the conversational depths, once you venture beyond the shallows of weather and gossip.