The third week of January produces a social awkwardness not apparent at any other time during the year.
It is nearly a month after Christmas and its festive feels, and three weeks after the world welcomed in the new year — 2020 is well into its rhythm.
But many people only got back to work this week. Colleagues, contacts and even the building security officer have not seen you since before you put on the extra holiday weight.
So, how do you greet them? A standard South African response is: “Compliments of the season”.
A leftover of the legacy of British colonialism, it’s a painfully polite way of saying, “I don’t know if you observe Christmas, but hello,” or “I know it’s too late to wish you a happy new year, but I want to say something nice anyway”.
As a journalist calling contacts and spokespeople, most conversations over the past few days were kicked off by the exchanging of niceties and well wishes for 2020.
But, for how long must this awkwardness go on? By the third week of January, we are already looking forward to our long-lost pay slips. The Dezemba giddiness has disappeared. The yuletide gay is long gone.
And that is the social conundrum facing office spaces, sidewalks greetings, and shopping centre chit-chat.
“It is something you say if you haven’t seen someone since the year started,” a relative tells me.
Indeed, I have in the past heard a good old “compliments” close to Easter.
Before I qualified and worked as a journalist I found employment at a Woolworths in Maynard Mall, back then a small shopping centre in Cape Town’s southern suburbs. It was mainly patronised by pensioners in the mornings, students in the afternoons, and families on weekends.
One such pensioners’ morning, as I stocked shelves with long-life food products, I observed the social dance of two elderly women meeting each other for the first time in the new year.
As they walked closer to each other, smiling, a high-pitched “Hi!”, was followed by one of my favourite malapropisms of all time: “Confidence of the season to you!” said the grey-haired aunty. “And compliments to you too,” came the reply.
“Confidence!” I sniggered.
Since then that has been my joke greeting for the new year. I say it because it begs of the recipient to ask, “Confidence?” I can then rehash the story of the two aunties in Woolworths.
But somehow I feel that that silver-maned senior was on to something.
Hung over from the festive season-high, our brain’s dopamine levels are trying to readjust and equalise. If you’re familiar with the raving club scene of the 1990s, you would hear ou jollers talk about “Suicide Tuesday”. If they partied on Saturday, they’d be hanging on Sunday. Their bodies reached some level of normality by Monday, but by Tuesday they’d likely be feeling down as their neurochemicals settled to find a balance.
South Africans, known for their “ke Dezemba boss” attitude to festive holidays, are likely deep in the blues by now.
Januworry continues to be the longest month of the year. Credit card bills have started to arrive. Stock in pantries and fridges are at critically low levels. School supplies and uniforms should have been purchased already.
And, on the national front, there’s also not much to feel buoyant about. The country’s political mudslinging doesn’t inspire confidence. The ever-looming risk of load-shedding and economic downgrades don’t leave much room to be optimistic.
We are a defeated bunch.
On the environmental front, climate change means unpredictable weather patterns. In South Africa, it is manifesting in one of the worst droughts in parts of the Eastern, Northern and Western Cape provinces. Parts of these regions have already been declared disaster areas. The occasional Karoo cloudburst brings only the slightest relief.
Similarly in Australia, where tinder-dry conditions make for ongoing and widespread bush fires.
Global geopolitics also appear to be on a knife-edge. With continual posturing between the US and Iran, the foreshadow of fascism in India, and the rise of Trump-like strongmen in South America, the world is in a mess.
Perhaps the theme for 2020 could be found in the Australian emergency services warning issued to people trapped in fire-hit areas: “The safest option is to take shelter. It is too late to leave.”
A warning to us all.
But, we South Africans know the power of hope. Our entire history is predicated on being taken to the very edge of disaster before managing to pull ourselves back to safety and sanity. Survival is woven into our DNA.
And that’s where we maybe need to have the confidence to know that everything will be all right and to use that strength to challenge those who are making bad decisions on our behalf. To have the confidence to change our own behaviour that negatively affects our climate. And the confidence to say, I still love being a South African.
Confidence of the season to you all!