Like Sally, I just want my tea the way I want it – oh, and the rest of society, too, while we’re at it.
There is a short pause and then a disarmingly frank admission.
I’m sorry. I don’t know what that means.
I’m in an aisle seat at the back of the plane and the flight attendant is, perforce, standing well within the comfortable limits of my personal space.
She has just asked how I want my tea; I have answered without looking up. Now I tilt my head sideways and up so I can see her face, all without touching the stranger in the middle seat. It’s a bit awkward but I do my best. Sometimes conversation demands eye contact.
When I explain that ‘clear’ tea is tea without creamer or sugar, she happily corrects me, Oh, you mean ‘black.’
For a nanosecond I consider whether to engage. There are, after all, many points that I could make. That ‘black’ is for coffee, not tea. That ‘black’ in tea is determined during processing of the leaves, not during serving of the liquid. That in the wee styrofoam cup favoured by airlines these days, ‘black’ tea would be so tannin-laden as to be undrinkable. I consider engaging, but decide against. Wisely, I feel.
But as she hands off a cup of ‘black’ tea which becomes ‘clear’ in my hands, it appears that my use of incorrect jargon has, contrarily, elevated me in her mind to the status of Tea Adept.
Why do the English ask for what they don’t want?
Regrettably, it has not simultaneously improved my mind-reading skills.
What do you mean?
It’s clear this has been a puzzler for a while: she’s ready to go, with no fumbling for words.
Well, they say, ‘Tea, no sugar,’ or ‘Tea, no milk.’ Why do they ask for what they don’t want?
And just like that, I am transported back forty-some years to a roadside truck stop somewhere in Great Britain. It is all fluorescent glare, scuffed chrome, faded melamine, and table spacing that brings my fellow patrons well within the comfortable limits of my personal space. In apparent response to my tea order, a small metal teapot emerges from the kitchen, unadorned.
Odd, I think, where’s the teabag?
I check the small saucer on which said teapot sits: maybe the teabag is tucked under the teapot as it sometimes is at home. Nope.
I check the table: in this tea-driven nation, maybe teabags are already on the table with the sugar and creamer. A staple, like Tabasco® in the US of A. Nope.
I sit, flummoxed, for just a minute, and then a horrible thought occurs. Maybe the teabag was put into the teapot back in the kitchen. Yikes. How strong will the tea be by now?
Frantic to minimize the damage but anxious to avoid a burn, I gingerly flip open the teapot’s lid to find the teabag already inside, happily steeping away in something less than eight ounces of hot water. Oh, no.
But not ‘oh no’ so much as ‘Oh No,’ because it’s not ‘a teabag,’ it’s three teabags. Yikes indeed.
Back in the present, safe from anything that looks remotely like English roadside-stop tea, I smile through the crick forming in my neck and try to explain.
About how standard English tea is so strong that both sugar and some form of creamer are assumed. About how, in that environment, the clearest way to shortcut the back-and-forth of ordering is to specify what—if anything—of the default configuration you don’t want.
Tea, no sugar. It both assumes and betrays the existence of shared experience, of common expectations.
As the flight attendant passes into the galley, I think about my own digressions from common expectations. I routinely specify that the toasted English muffin be dry, and that the salad dressing be on the side. But beyond food, are there other default configurations that I’d rather override?
Hey, I know! How about, Political discourse, no posturing. Ooh, ooh! And how about, Abortion debate, no vitriol. What the heck, reach for the stars.
Of course, if I think I’ll have a better chance with less-violent sports, I could always ask for Hockey, no concussions. And as the World Cup winds up, would anyone care to join me in Soccer, no diving?
Or if I want to limit my sights and opt for something a little more relevant to my day-to-day—something more like that cup of tea—I might simply ask for, Conversations overheard in passing on the street, no effing swearing.
OK, I’m ready to order. Now, where’s a really good flight attendant when you need one?