The ‘ffff’ sound and the importance of judging character

Tales from a Brussels Bar
The importance of judging character













Tam the barman suddenly exclaimed “ffff” – that was what started it. He was under pressure – it was a Honduran diplomat’s leaving party and a lively crowd was keeping the staff busy.

Tam had been trying to do something with the cash register. “It’s funny,” I thought. You know that a Brit is responsible when you hear the “ffff” sound – and you always know what it means. It means things are starting to go wrong, and that little task you thought was easy is turning out to be a real hassle.

In fact you could say it’s a sign of good character, I thought, though Tam would laugh if I told him so. Someone who uses the “ffff” sound rather than the uncensored expletive is probably sensitive to the feelings of family or other members of an older generation, to whom the “F” word is a serious epithet resorted to only in the most dire situations.

I thought of my father. Using that word was unthinkable to him – at worst it would be something like “bloody” or “ruddy”, words that you never hear these days. On one family occasion we’d had to warn one of the nephews who’d grown up with the “F” word at school, and didn’t even realise he was causing offence.

So full marks to you Tam, I thought, silently toasting him. Personal character is all too rare.

It was as if Maj had been reading my thoughts. He’d been talking to a smartly-dressed woman from the Honduran embassy, when he turned to me, saying, “You’d confirm that I’m a good judge of character, wouldn’t you?”

I spluttered. Facing Maj and the Honduran woman, I cudgelled my brain for a suitable reply. Maj probably was a reasonably good judge of character – but what was I really agreeing to here?

Fortunately, he was too impatient to wait for a reply. “It is difficult to judge people in Brussels,” he told the two of us, “because it’s such a cosmopolitan place. You have to be mentally flexible, to be well-travelled enough to understand a range of different cultures.”

“It’s an interactive thing,” he turned back to the Honduran lady. “I started talking to you here, not for any reason like wanting to start a relationship, but simply because I’m open to people and like talking to them, and sensed the same in you. It’s the kind of instant character judgement people make every day.”

I turned back to my beer. Maj probably is a pretty good judge of character, I thought, even if he has to tell everyone so. As for the “open” thing and chatting to people, it wasn’t really my forte. If all the world is a stage, I thought, give me a job as a stage hand.

But Maj had been mind-reading again! “It’s easy,” he said, including me into the conversation again. “you just have to keep plugging away. ”

“I sometimes meet people in bars who are insufferable,” he went on. I gazed into my glass thoughtfully. “But you have to keep sifting through the sand to find the nuggets of gold.”

The Honduran woman was looking at him with an admiring gleam in her eye. Maj caught her look, and added hastily, “Of course I’m married, with children and probably grandchildren soon – I just enjoy talking to people.”

She looked away, and I sighed to myself. “So many mistaken connections in the world,” I thought, signalling to Tam for another beer. Life, it seems, is made up of a succession of near-misses. It was a wonder that good people managed to find each other at all and establish settled relationships.

Maj was still reading my mind. The Honduran woman left, and he turned to me looking slightly sheepish. “I might like talking,” he said to me, “but I know which side my bread is buttered. I’d never leave Nita and the kids.”

“After all,“ he continued, “judging character is one thing – but sometimes you need to have good character yourself as well!”

Well said Maj, I thought, as Tam raised his glass to us from across the bar. Here’s to personal character.

© Philip Hunt, 2010.

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