Sometimes when I wake up, I look out of the window, decide I can’t face it, and call in sick. Other days, I go to work in the same top I wore to bed the night before. I don’t know why. I just can’t bring myself to care enough to change it.” Tilly and I are on the 7.30pm East Coast train to Newcastle, and we’re over an hour in. The Yorkshire landscape, green and lit in a summer haze, is whizzing past the window to my right, and I realise, fleetingly, I don’t even know where Tilly is getting off the train. In fact, I don’t know anything about Tilly, other than her name and the fact that she occasionally makes questionable choices in the morning.
Tilly wasn’t a friend, as such. Neither was she family, or someone I had known in any capacity prior to stepping on the train that evening back in May. As we settled into our seats, we pulled out identical tiny bottles of wine. I made a joke about nuts. She laughed. And then we – two strangers – told each other our secrets.
I know what you’re thinking: speaking to people in public is the worst. That you actively avoid those people. That to prevent any sort of interaction with a stranger you visibly raise your book in protest. Raise the volume on your headphones. Raise your eyebrows in horror at the thought of small talk. Permanently lower your gaze. I don’t. I’m that person, the one you’ve been trying to sidestep out of a conversation with. I talk to strangers. Hi.
The night I met Tilly was not my first time chatting with a stranger – or my last. Only two weeks ago I spoke to two cool cats (who turned out to be from a prominent London record label) on the Victoria line to Brixton because I liked the guy’s sideburns and the woman’s smile. In August, there was Adam (Hull to London train; an artist in his 30s who rides a motorcycle and admits, like me, he gets lonely) and Matt (Peterborough to London; a sports journalist and part-time rugby referee I tried to set up with my friend). In the past, I’ve been invited to join a netball team following a chat and exchange of email addresses on the number 38 bus, and met the first woman to ever wear trousers to work in the City by striking up a conversation on the 242 bus.
Then there was the journalist in New York I met on the subway; we followed each other on Twitter and exchanged supportive words from across the pond. Two guys I debated Freud’s penis envy theory with on the Central line, who I partied with until 5am after a work party fell flat. Evelyn, an incredibly interesting, tattooed, Australian musician – the daughter of Barry White’s pianist – I met in a rock’n’roll bar in Edinburgh, who came over to where I was reading, alone, and stayed for hours. Just last week I met Claire, a marketing manager and Oxford graduate who I helped on to the Northern line as she was feeling poorly following a night out. She messaged me the next day to say she got home safe. We arranged another night out, so we can share a bottle of wine rather than just a journey home.
Yet the general consensus is that speaking to strangers is needless, annoying, un-British and just a bit odd. I’m frequently told it’s a peculiar habit. If I mention someone I met by chance, friends roll their eyes; colleagues recoil. Last month, when a rare, like- minded soul tried to hand out ‘Tube Chat’ badges to fellow commuters at Old Street, Twitter revolted and a thousand writers took to their keyboards to contest the idea. Moreover, it’s just not cool.
And in some circumstances, I’d agree. I’m all for striking up a conversation with a stranger until that stranger turns out to be a sex pest with no regard for personal space (the arm rest is there for a reason, buddy). Plus, adult, friendly conversations are a two- way thing (I’m in no way advocating street harassment). If I don’t get the vibe that someone wants to chat – through body language and eye contact – I don’t. The key here, and with all potentially non-consensual interactions, is listening and respect. We all know when someone doesn’t want to be spoken to.
But here’s the crux: while the majority of people believe that speaking to a stranger on an otherwise solitary journey would make them anxious or irritated, experts say the opposite is true. A 2014 study found that people are generally happier after a social interaction with someone they don’t know. Kio Stark, author of When Strangers Meet, also argues that positive interactions with people from different social groups to us can even help eradicate bias and prejudice.
“One of the great things about speaking to strangers is that you then have to acknowledge that person as a human and an individual in a way that you might not otherwise have done if you didn’t interact with them,” explains Stark, whose TED talk, Why You Should Talk To Strangers, has been watched more than one million times. “The more we speak to people different to us, the more we empathise and the more connections we create.”
Bridging the gaps we’ve forged in society could also help to cure the pervasive loneliness seeping through our generation. According to a survey by The Mental Health Foundation, loneliness is more likely to affect 18 to 34-year-olds than those over 55, and a recent report found that isolation is experiencing something of a commodification. In LA, new businesses are springing up for the lonely – you can employ walkers for companionship and ‘Rent-A-Friend’ to go to the cinema or to dinner. To me it seems ludicrous to pay to spend time with a complete stranger, when they’re all around us in our everyday lives.
Personally speaking, the lack of judgment and acceptance I have found in interactions with strangers has been a saviour. A few years ago, after moving to London from Newcastle, I developed a social anxiety so severe that, at its height, I walked into a pub one evening, walked out two seconds later and subsequently barely left the house for almost three weeks. I hadn’t spoken to a stranger at the bar, but I saw someone look my way and in my mind – a tangled ball of woollen thoughts – I interpreted that I didn’t fit in there, in a grotty little pub in East London. And then I convinced myself I didn’t really fit anywhere.
Let go of the fear
Over the next few months of regular Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to tackle my fear of social interaction, my thoughts slowly unknotted until there was space between the threads. I dropped the habits – shutting down communication, exiting conversations unexpectedly as I felt panic rising – that I had developed. And I found that, gradually, I could speak without feeling terrified of the repercussions – of the judgment I feared when I revealed myself, however slightly – again.
Strangers, strangely, came easiest. Transitory interactions became the conversational equivalent of one-night stands: brief, sometimes joyous, sometimes falling a bit flat. Always without expectation and wrapped up in the comforting notion that whatever happens can be left just where it happened, between the sheets of my immediate past. Now, in my job, I talk to thousands of strangers – in person or over the phone, when I interview. In writing, right now, to you. Still now, I find it more intimidating meeting dates or going to busy parties where I already know someone. An anonymous, fleeting meeting with a stranger is, for me, much less weighted. “We get a little dose of intimacy when we have an exchange with a stranger,” agrees Stark. “A moment of recognition of each other. It’s fleeting intimacy. Many introverts talk about enjoying speaking to strangers because it’s a situation without consequences. You can walk away any time. The thing that drains them is the situation with a friend, where there’s expectation.”
I never saw Tilly again, but there are strangers who are no longer strangers to me. I’ll meet the record label guy for lunch in a week or so; Claire and I are going to have a drink. When I messaged Evelyn while writing this feature to ask if she remembered meeting me, she said it was “one of those moments you don’t forget, running into someone who has the same interests and values as you out of the blue.” We’re going out soon.
I might not be in touch with everyone I’ve met in this way, but I have genuinely learned from all of them. Sometimes these fleeting moments last no longer than a wry smile on the Tube, sometimes they endure. They can be sad confessions of isolation or lost love, or hilarious or angry. Occasionally, they make me feel disillusioned, and I don’t always meet people I particularly like.
But I like to think these, often nameless, people make me more tolerant, remind me I should never assume anything about anyone; that people aren’t always who we think they are on first glance, and not everyone wears clean clothes each day. They make me lighter, and I believe I’m happier for it.
Because, as they say, a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet.
Photography: Sarah Brimley