28th September 2011 at 08:34 #460728
Anonymous28th September 2011 at 08:34 #460729
In which our correspondent realises that sometimes it’s best just to keep quiet…
Whatever you might have been told as a child, there are plenty of reasons to talk to strangers. It can educate you, enhance your confidence, make you a handy contact or two and, if nothing else, pass the time on a long-haul flight a bit more effectively than staring into space or watching some godawful movie.
I’ve always enjoyed striking up a conversation with my fellow passengers – usually, a delayed train or flight is ample reason to pounce on some poor unsuspecting soul, but other times there’s no need for any pretext at all. As one delightful character told me on a recent flight to Amsterdam, while pointing at his wedding ring: “I’m not talking to you because I like you, or because I think you might be interesting. It just makes the flight go quicker.” Pleased to meet you, too.
You might think it arrogant of him to have spoken to me in that way, but he was simply treading that awkward social line faced when two strangers get pushed together and end up chatting about their personal lives for a lengthy stint – a scenario that in any other context would leave one’s spouse a bit miffed to say the least. (My ex would probably have been too busy chatting up the person on the other side of the aisle to care, but that’s another story.)
So my Dutch friend has his tactics for laying down boundaries and, after years of travelling, I do too. My initial naive glee at making new friendships has long been replaced by a more circumspect approach to instigating chat. After all, you cannot be entirely sure of what you’re getting yourself into, and good intentions can backfire.
I discovered this in Mexico City, on my first solo long-haul trip (talk about throwing me in at the deep end). I was excited to practise the language, sample some streetside empanadas and gab with the locals. Two groping incidents, one stalker and a taxi driver’s ransom later, and my chipper constitution buckled. Some obscene heckling from a handful of riot police and I was done. So long, fresh-faced young thing, hello Miss Suspicion.
So, I’ve learnt to pick my targets wisely. Remember, whether you’re on a plane or train, you may be trapped next to your new “friend” for hours. Engage the wrong person and you will be forced to listen to them wax lyrical about the joy of building your own fence, why their last partner was a loser, or the best way to potty-train one’s child (do I look like the mothering type?).
I therefore go for people who look like me – suited-and-booted but with the world-weary air of a seasoned traveller. People I know will chat pleasantly for a duration we’re both comfortable with, then politely nod at their TV, get out their laptop or recline their seat for a nap. Who will shake your hand at the end of the flight and go on their merry way, asking for nothing more.
Sometimes, unfortunately, you’re not given the luxury of choice. On a recent flight from Heathrow to Tel Aviv, a leering gentleman insisted that I stay in my seat while he squeezed his portly form past to get window-side. For a cringeworthy moment, I thought he wouldn’t make it. Before I could reach for my headphones – usually a fail-safe way to dissuade someone from talking to you – he launched into a lecture on why women are hard, selfish and heartless (except wife number four, she’s a doll). No amount of polite nodding and smiling followed by, “Pardon me, I’d just like to watch this movie,” could shut him up.
Somewhere between his account of wife number two’s failings as a woman and wink number 12, I lost the will to live and tried another tack – telling him in an icy voice exactly why I thought all his relationships had failed. Him. A frown, a mumbled “you’re all the same” and, finally, silence. Bliss.
So proceed with care. And whatever you do, don’t give them your name, because now there’s the added danger of internet stalking. I slipped up on a delayed train north last year, having struck up a conversation with a harmless-looking banker. Ten minutes after disembarking, a message pinged into my inbox from Facebook, his smiling face (cheek-to-cheek with his wife’s) asking me to be his friend, accompanied by a lengthy note on how he’d enjoyed our chat and would “love to do it again some time”.
Where did the respect for privacy go? Why does he think it’s okay to intrude on my personal cyberspace? Why does he think I’m that desperate? Admittedly, and in his defence, perhaps it’s because I have an irrepressible compulsion to talk to strangers. Perhaps.
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