A few years ago I was at a friend's wedding when I noticed her 21-year-old cousin — let's call him Adam — deep in animated conversation with a great aunt from a distant branch of the family. I'd been stuck talking to this sweet old lady earlier, and we'd made polite chitchat about the weather, golf (her) and work (me). I had escaped on the pretext of getting another drink, and we were probably both relieved to see the back of each other.
But with Adam's arrival, the great aunt's table had become the rowdiest in the room. Curious, I walked over to find Adam showing off his Tinder profile. We sat there, the three of us, for a happy half hour, helping him decide which girls to swipe right on.
When I talk to older people, I find myself sticking to neutral subjects out of an innate desire not to shock them. Staying off Tinder and on the weather just seems more respectful. It's just the way things are: everyone speaks differently to their grandmother than to their friends.
Why, though? The way Adam was so relaxed with the great aunt made me think about the pointless barriers we put up between generations, and why we would all be better off getting rid of them. Whether we're 30 or 80, we've all had pretty similar lives, and we should stop pretending it's any other way.
This separation between the generations is a very British thing, and I didn't realise how strange it was until I moved to Turkey and began covering the Middle East as a foreign correspondent for this newspaper.
There, it's much more normal for multiple generations to live together and to mix on a daily basis. Family get-togethers aren't an annual exercise in teeth-pulling hellishness where everyone fires passive-aggressive digs over the crème de menthe. They're just an ordinary fact of life. It's the same in much of southern Europe: I was once at a raucous party in Italy where a friend announced his grandparents were coming over. I thought we'd have to dial things down, but no one else even blinked — when the elders arrived, they happily settled themselves in for a gossip and a glass of wine. I've seen the same thing (sometimes with less booze, sometimes with more) from Baghdad to Istanbul to Bethlehem.
A couple of Christmases ago my young cousins decided we should all play Cards Against Humanity. It's a game where the only aim is to use phrases printed on the cards to make sentences that are as filthy as possible. My 86-year-old grandmother was sitting at the table and had no idea what she was getting herself into. I was dead set against her playing. My cousins ignored me and pushed ahead.
Of course she loved it. Within five minutes she was chuckling away at a card that read "those fish that swim up your penis in the Amazon". I should have known: she was a nurse for 40 years, it is impossible to shock her. After that the rest of the day was much more relaxed. Once you've talked about penis fish, it's hard to keep up a facade of formality.
Each generation thinks they're different to the previous ones, and they are — a bit. I'm pretty sure my grandmother wasn't going to squat raves in Hackney Wick when she was a teenager. But she did go to dances, have boyfriends, get drunk and smoke cigarettes.
When I'm older, I don't want to feel like my family is treading on eggshells around me, or keeping me at an arm's length with some granny-appropriate version of events. I want the good gossip, I want to hear who is snogging who, I want to understand whatever Minority Report-style technology has replaced phones. I want to tell a room of horrified generation alphas about what used to happen at Berlin nightclubs before social distancing cancelled everything. Not a word about the weather.
Written by: Louise Callaghan
© The Times of London