00.09. Waterloo Station. The last train home from London. The station: pretty empty; occupied by people going home after seeing friends; football fans; and late night businessmen from the city. We all want the same thing. To get home; to be tucked up in bed before we know it, without any hassle.
The idea of being part of someone’s life for that split second: an innocent brush past, a glimpse of eye contact or the shared interval waiting for the platform to appear on the station notice board with a stranger has always perplexed me. So many people in the world, so many that you see during one day but will never actually have any contact with further than that one second.
For me this journey was to hold a challenge to the traditional British hostility to other people. Usually, especially so late in the evening, I am unwilling to talk to anyone I don’t know.
I recall a few months ago an Irish lad trying to chat me up in the same place after I’d spent almost an hour struggling with the Northern line because there was a tube strike and it was one of the few lines running (this in itself had been an interesting experience, being held like cattle waiting for market outside the barriers down to Leicester square station platforms: a fight broke out despite the staff using all their resources to try and control the agonising situation).
At the time all I could think was “oh my goodness please go away. I just want to get on my train and go home in peace. I do not appreciate the stale smell of beer on your breath and I do not want to go for a drink with you another time!”
And once again this was another night. Another group of strangers sitting in the same carriage. I’ve always been pretty rude with other people looking at me, always thinking “err what are you looking at?” (Not in a chavy way of course, just in a way that I like my personal space and am paranoid that maybe I have something on my face, some unfortunate lipstick smudge or ink mark on my cheek from studying so hard during the day followed by drinks after work).
But this was to be a different situation.
I hadn’t had any dinner. I liquid supper had sufficiently starved me of any adequate energy so I tucked into a sandwich I had bought at the station.
I looked around my carriage. A boy, I guessed about 16, pulling off the standard estate look, sat opposite me. Two business men sat separately on the other side of the isle, and a girl sat a little way behind me. Directly behind me I noticed a man, probably could do with a wash, carrying a vacant inebriated expression on his face.
That’s another thing about the British. I don’t know what it’s like in other countries but we do like our personal space. Often sit on a train or bus and take ownership of the double sit that we chose, angry at the poor unsuspecting person who dare sit next to us.
Originating from developmental stages as infants when we are warned not to talk to strangers, particularly around the age of eight months, the outward fearful behaviours of a child include crying, recoiling and clinging and are not unusual in later life.
Finally, an explanation. I’m glad to think other people think the same and I’m not just a cynical, rude, southerner.
Ironically it’s strange how people take pleasure in knowing someone is going through the same thing despite being so personal within ourselves.
Coming back to my train journey. It started off like any other route. The train set off, we stopped at a few stations. I giggled at a man in an obvious rush waddling down the carriage to get off at the next stop, noticing the boy opposite me had seen the same thing and was also sniggering to himself.
A shared observation. Although I did not know him, this pleasure in knowing others are the same returned to me. Something so small with a stranger tends to give a distanced bond in some way. Something which is difficult to describe but can be understood by many people.
I’m not entirely sure how the next part happened but it brought the four of us together in an unexpected arrangement.
I was listening to my iPod. Full volume obviously, I wanted to be immersed into my own little world, away from the rattling of the train and forget the other people around me.
First the man behind me got up and started talking to the girl. I tried to over hear their conversation as I noticed it sparked intrigue with the other passengers but realising I was eaves dropping on the middle of a conversation that I didn’t really understand and to be honest didn’t really care about I went back to my music.
Suddenly the boy got up and entered the conversation. As he was in my eye line I thought something must be kicking off. So tried again to listen to what was going on. I was tired and couldn’t really be bothered to turn around and peer through the seats.
Something about the girl being a singer, the boy tried to tell her that he knew people in the music business; giving her a card so she could get in touch with someone who would be able to help her achieve her dreams of being a recording artist.
Here, I observed further hostility towards strangers although the rest of us noticed that we were all listening or watching and we laughed to each other. But the girl was adamant that she did not believe the boys story.
As the rest of us learnt that we were together in observing the somewhat unexpected situation we were confident in getting involved ourselves.
The girl got off the train and the boy sat back down opposite me. I think it must have been that subconscious bond we gained from sharing the same situation but we all started chatting.
It turned out that one of the business men knew some of my friends and that the boy was from near where I live. But the drunken man was an idiot to say the least.
He was telling us his life story. And rambling on about politics and things he just didn’t understand. Trying to come across as though he was educated but we all knew deep down that he was probably lying about the things he was coming out with.
Once he finally got off the train, we continued to laugh about the man’s ignorance. And it brought us together.
It was as if I’d made a train family. A group of randomers, from completely different background, but satisfied in continuing conversations over their shared experience.
This train journey made me reflect on life.
Psychologically, even though we fear other people, as explained by stranger anxiety I think that deep down we all take pleasure in meeting new people.
We are human after all. Historically we have travelled in communities, right back to the days of the cave man and beyond.
We need interaction with other people else we go mad. And meeting new people is exciting and can teach us a lot about ourselves and lifestyles we had no previous knowledge of.
It can help begin to understand the diversities in society. Many people, me included, grow up in a world where we only know our street, our school, the same sort of people and the same sorts of activities.
The sheer extent of variation through society is vast and talking to a stranger invites us into their world. Even if only for a few minutes. In doing so, we may not change that persons views, alter their life choices, or even impact on them emotionally, but I feel that it is important to be able to interact with different people.
To become part of a larger network is important for everyone. Whether it is for careers, relationships or help further down the line, we should prosper in meeting new people and conversing with strangers.
So I advise anyone reading this. Next time you’re on public transport, in a shop queue, or waiting to cross a road. Think twice about the people around you. Be less fearful in meeting others. You never know who you will meet. And even if it just involves picking up someone’s change that they’ve dropped, it makes you feel like you’ve helped. Even a small gesture like helping an old woman cross the road or something equally trivial can brighten up your day, not only the person you’re helping.
And it is important that we learn how to talk to strangers. We have been brought up to fear other people. But I think if we pull the barriers down just a bit, we can learn that we can brighten our days and make us feel more alive. And furthermore, cherish the idea that people are going through the same thing as you and know that you are not alone.