Standing near me in the village playground, festively arrayed in a big red Santa hat, and a bright knot of multi-coloured scarves around his neck, the young Daddy and I looked on benignly as his daughter and my grandson clambered up the big climbing frame and carefully navigated their way along a suspended shaky bridge.
As we stood watching the two excited children climb, and calling out encouragingly to them, I casually commented on the beautifully designed village playground, saying it was a really wonderful facility for children.
The response was plain weird.
The man glanced over my head with a blank smile and mumbled something inaudibly before looking back down at his phone.
Thinking he simply hadn’t heard me, I uttered another pleasantry, commenting briefly on how good his little daughter was at climbing — which she was — and asking what age she was.
He told me exactly what her age was and no more — in the same barely audible voice — this time glancing to my left before returning to the screen in his hand. It was for all the world as if he was actually talking to someone standing beside me. Except nobody was.
And then he moved, ever so subtly, ever so deliberately, a few feet away.
Despite all his outward festive trappings of apparent conviviality and amiability, Santa Hat Daddy evaded my attempt at small talk as if I was trying to do something unsavoury.
He froze out the tiniest of casual human connections as if there was something wrong with it.
Worst of all, he left me feeling as if I’d actually done something inappropriate; that I was, in fact, an unwelcome and annoying intruder into his personal space.
He was not, I think, being deliberately or outrageously rude, but his behaviour made me so uncomfortable that I subtly encouraged my grandson to move to another part of the playground.
We left the climbing frame corner, and, soon afterwards, the playground itself.
It was a minor but unsettling experience, which brought to mind the similar experiences of two other people.
One was the well-known author Alice Taylor, who commented on something that happened to her almost a year ago in a similar small rural community setting — her home village of Innishannon in West Cork, in fact.
One morning last January, Taylor, who is renowned for her warm-hearted books about Irish country life, was walking through the car park of her local playground.
She called out hello to a number of young people and their families who were on their way to the playground. She was somewhat taken aback, she recalled, when nobody at all responded to her and everyone she spoke to avoided eye contact. In fact, she recalled, the only response was from a dog, who wagged his tail at her.
Taylor’s subsequent analysis was as apt as it was worrying — the writer, who is in her early eighties, believes that the traditionally friendly Irish people are putting up a “wall of silence” between themselves and others, even in terms of the smallest, most casual of interactions.
I thought of Taylor as I watched this well-turned-out young father standing in the small playground while his kids played, eyes down, looking into his phone and subtly rebuffing any attempt at small talk by others— all the while dressed up in a ‘fun’ Santa Hat and ’fun’ colourful clothing.
They’d have talked to you and made eye contact.
Good lord, they might even have smiled.
They certainly wouldn’t have treated a sociable comment as something unwanted or even suspicious.
This uncomfortable little episode reminded me of the experience of somebody else I know, who lives in Dublin. One day this friend of mine was walking through the Phoenix Park. He passed a much older man, who nodded and said ‘hello’ to him.
My friend automatically said ‘hello’ back. The old man paused and said something about the weather. My acquaintance, too, paused and responded and the two men chatted for a while.
Before they went their separate ways, the old man said that his wife had died, and that he walked through the area on a daily basis just to get out of the house. However, he said, this was the first real human interaction he had had while walking in the Phoenix Park for a very long time.
People didn’t make casual eye contact or say hello anymore, he said. It was terrible. They wouldn’t even look at you. He didn’t understand it. He kept trying with people, he said, what else could you do, and my friend was the first person who had responded in months.
My friend was horrified. Up to then he hadn’t really noticed how unfriendly people had become, he said.
Have we really, as Taylor so succinctly put it, got to a point where we think people are not just being pleasant for the sake of it? That there has to be some kind of hidden agenda when somebody says hello?
So, I ask again. What on earth is happening to us?
What’s all this about? Going out into a public space and acting the fun parent in a Santa hat and festive clothing and then subtly cold-shouldering some person making conversation as if they’re criminals on the make?
The more I thought about it, the more I felt there’s something deeply incongruous and fundamentally unsettling about the whole phenomenon.
Because it is a phenomenon and it is affecting a lot of people under the age of 40.
Older people still know how to be sociable — I had a long, perfectly enjoyable and invigorating conversation about Covid-19 and the new vaccine with a man I’d never seen before in my life, in a doctor’s waiting room recently. But the man was in his late fifties or more, and he was not Irish.
For God’s sake, what’s happening to us as a society?