Many thanks to Sabrina and Chris for their lovely observations of how we say goodbye. They have reminded me of something curious. We have an expression in British English which doesn’t seem to exist in ‘merican: ‘saying our goodbyes’ (plural).
In ‘merican it would be ‘saying goodbye’ and of course we can say that in BrE too. But saying our goodbyes is an apt description of the long drawn out process I’d expect in BrE when we’re bidding farewell. We tend to fidget around a bit and mutter things like ‘Is that the time?’, ‘Really should be going…’ ‘Well, anyway…’ So we teeter on the brink for ages and then, just when we’re on the point of getting out the door, someone will say something that means going back to the beginning and starting over again. And as Sabrina points out, from an American point of view, it seems like we don’t have handy phrases like, ‘It’s been nice talking to you’ and ‘Catch you later’.
So farewells can be a protracted process in the UK, but I think it can happen a bit in ‘merican too – just not on the same scale. In fact a US sociolinguist, Nessa Wolfson, commented on it sometime back and when she was describing her very cool theory called ‘The Bulge’. She noticed that the speech behavior of middle class Americans varies depending on whether they are talking to people they are intimate with or strangers, or whether they are talking to one of the people in the middle ground. So a brief ‘Give me a call’ or ‘Bye’ could be all we need to accomplish a parting from our best friend or the person who has just served us something in a shop. But the process takes longer with people we know a bit but not a lot. Here’s Nessa (and her article can be found here):
I call this theory the bulge, because of the way frequencies of certain types of speech behavior plot out on a diagram, with the two extreme showing very similar patterns as opposed to the middle section, which displays a characteristic bulge…we find again and again that the two extremes of social distance – minimum and maximum – seem to call forth very similar behavior, while relationships which are more toward the center show marked differences
So we behave in similar ways with people who are intimates and strangers – which prompts the question: what do they have in common? Well Nessa reckons it’s that it’s to do with the certainty and stability of the relationships. We know how things stand and what’s expected in our relationships with close friends and family members in much the same way as we do with strangers. It’s where things are changeable that we start saying things like, ‘We really must get together again soon’, or ‘Well, we really must be making a move… early start… err…’ . It’s because things are open to negotiation. As Nessa puts it:
The lengthy negotiations over future meeting time reassure both participants that even though they may not designate a definite time when they will see one another again, they both value the relationship enough to want it to continue.
So anyway folks… Er, must press on… Things to do… Hope it’s not too long before we… er…/ It’s been nice talking to you and catch you later.