The art of silly season party conversation has always been a tad stressful.
For Melburnians emerging from two years of ‘Rona isolation, the thought of making social smalltalk can be enough to send us scuttling back to the couch.
But a Melbourne journalist has come up with a book full of thought-provoking nuggets to drop into the dullest of conversations.
As the national explainer editor at The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, Felicity Lewis (pictured) is charged with finding background and context for readers, answering some of the year’s – and life’s – most baffling questions.
“We were publishing so many of these beautifully written explainers I thought they could fill a book,” Lewis explains. “Last year Penguin published What’s It Like To Be Chased by a Cassowary? This year we’ve gone with Explain That: 31 Intriguing Reasons Why.”
Five of the Best asked Lewis to share some highlights from her book: conversation starters to help Melburnians navigate silly season social interactions. These are her top five.
1. Stick your pinky out
Etiquette is French for ticket, from the days of Louis XIV where “tickets” showed you where to sit at elaborate banquets.
Status anxiety may have led to the weaponising of etiquette in some quarters, but there are sound reasons for most rules. Knives were once much sharper than they are now, with double-sided blades, and if a fight broke out, well, everyone had one. We still set our (much blunter) dinner knives with the blade facing the plate, we keep our elbows tucked in and we never point a knife at anyone – to avoid provoking violence during dinner.
2. And the Oscar goes to…
The story goes that the Oscars were so named because a secretary at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said the statue reminded her of her uncle Oscar,.
Citizen Kane and Taxi Driver are two classics that didn’t ever win best picture. Gongs did go to Ben Hur, Casablanca, The Sound of Music and The Godfather (also The Godfather Part II).
The awards are not chosen by a handful of people in a smoky boardroom; they are voted for by 9900 academy members who work in the film industry.
Cricket was an Olympic sport in 1900 with just two competitors: France was defeated by Great Britain, represented by Devon & Somerset Wanderers Cricket Club.
Twenty20 is a hot tip to be nominated for inclusion at Brisbane’s 2032 Games. Breakdancing is a new event in Paris in 2024. But, sadly for Ben Hur fans, chariot racing is unlikely to ever make a comeback; new Olympic events must have a popular, youth focus.
4. Love at first sniff
In 1995, a Swiss biological researcher called Claus Wedekind ran a “sweaty T-shirt study”. He asked a group of women to sniff a bunch of T-shirts that had been worn for two days by male students wearing no deodorant. He found their preferences were linked to genetics – when looking for a partner we sniff out good genes. Taste is important too. That first kiss contains a lot of information …
5. Look at moi
One of the distinctive things about the Australian accent is the dipthong: two vowel sounds running together in words like “rain”, “boy” and “how”.
Australians tend to emphasise the first vowel sound, more so in broad accents. We also change our accent to suit our situation, called “speech accommodation”.
People do this the world over, Australians do it their way. You might say “Howzitgarn?” down the pub before switching to “proper” speech at the office. Or you might slip into speaking in a “sociolect” like the “diviiiiiine” Prue and Trude from Kath & Kim. But the received pronunciation (RP) of BBC announcers and plummy types is old hat for most “Orstrellyuns”.
Explain That: 31 Intriguing Reasons Why is in bookstores now and available on Booktopia.