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These are different times, says my mate Barney. Mrs Barney reminds him that it’s not the times that have changed but the people who’ve been forced to. But Barney laments,

‘Everything is just too politically correct these days. You cannot say anything now that’s remotely funny without incurring some backlash.’ His wife points out that the said ‘backlash’ would have been prevalent even years ago if only people had the same means of connecting publicly as they do today. ‘Don’t go away thinking that everybody accepted everything back in the day. They frowned, they dissented, they had contrary opinions, they didn’t like what someone was saying, or how someone was behaving. Only, they didn’t have common platforms to air their views,’ she reminds him.

Nevertheless, asserts Barney, we are beginning to live in sterile times. One has to think ten times before saying something. If you have an opinion, these days it’s safer to keep it to yourself. And how is that going to help if everybody clams up about how they truly feel about things? What’s to become of general discourse, dialogue, debate? Mrs Barney rolls her eyes at the mention of the word ‘debate’. ‘Barney is our household’s champion debater,’ she informs me, telling me something that I’m already aware of. ‘In his debates, what he opines is of great importance. What others say is to be taken on board, with a teeny pinch of salt.’ Barney bristles at this, saying, ‘See, that’s what I mean. That’s very judgemental. These days you can get away with trashing my debating abilities and techniques but if I said something in return that would be cause for concern, disrespect.’

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Barney loves being contentious, don’t pay him much attention, says his wife dismissively. I sit sipping my coffee, listening to the two of them, as I have done on numerous occasions. Mine has become the role of silent arbitrator. That is, I sit silently while they bounce their contravening opinions, little arrows and barbs, off me in the direction of each other. Maybe, I think, my presence helps because this ‘deflection’ softens the impact of what each one is accusing the other of. In public, in the presence of an outsider or a friend, a dispute between a couple can acquire a softened quality of anger, frustration. Because of the outsider’s presence, barbs, taunts and sarcasm are sometimes delivered with the hint of a laugh in the voice.

It was only a year ago when Barney, finding himself alone with me sipping coffee, wondered aloud how the two of them (he and the missus) had slipped, without noticing it, from the stage of whispering sweet nothings to what he called, ‘The Shouting Stage’. ‘Nothing we seem to do appears to be in agreement with the other,’ he claimed, ‘I’ll suggest something, she’ll suggest something else, usually the opposite and we’ll end up shouting our way through to a disagreement instead of an agreement.’ A year ago, Mrs Barney never used to be a regular at morning coffee. Now, she is. And it is here, over a cup of coffee, with me as silent intermediary, I’ve discovered, that their muted-down arguments are played out, so that they can ‘get it all out, get if off the chest’ in a slightly more amicable environment where there is an invisible line drawn in the sand which neither of them will cross, and then they can return home, slightly chastened but also too tired to bicker any further, he to his music with the headphones on, and she to binge watching her favourite television shows, also with the headphones on. Together, but somehow amicably apart.

Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.