On Her Own

Talking with strangers: public transportation edition

Public transportation is one of the odd places we spend time with strangers. On the surface, the only thing we know we have in common is that we are going from one place to another. We might not have started at the same origin point, and we might not be ending up at the same final destinations. For a moment, though, our paths cross and merge in the most literal of ways. Many of the people we journey with for this slice of time are normal folks, just like us. They may be more or less interesting, and be kinder or less kind. As we spend what may seem like interminable hours waiting, waiting, waiting until we get to the next stop and continue on with our lives, we are stuck in between, neither here nor there. Even in the age of cell phones and internet access everywhere, when it’s easier than ever to stay in constant contact with the people we love, being stuck in the bubble of a plane, train, or bus can close us off from them, forcing or encouraging us to interact with the people immediately around us.

Sometimes it can be necessary or simply helpful. Garbled announcements, non-working apps or kiosks, and confusing signs are always part of the travel experience, and they can make it difficult to navigate where you’re supposed to be and when. It’s even worse when there are delays or other wrinkles added to your plans, let alone the true emergencies that might come up. Without your usual support system in easy reach, you might actually have to talk to and cooperate with the people around you: fellow passengers, crew members, company agents, and others. Asking for clarification or help from people we don’t know can set off social anxiety even in those of us who might not normally be prone to it. Part of being well-prepared for traveling alone is learning how to gather up the courage to talk to strangers when you have to, then asking effectively for what you need – politely when you can, more forcefully when you can’t.

Sometimes it can be difficult to avoid. We’ve all been there, enjoying the moments of silence away from the demands of everyday life. Even though there may be the hubbub of a crowd around us, we burrow into our personal bubbles and read, work, listen to music, watch movies, or play on our phones. Since we don’t know anybody around us, then we shouldn’t have to deal with them, right? Aside from necessities or emergencies, though, there are often folks who want to strike up a conversation for other reasons. They might be bored, attracted to you romantically or platonically, or just plain old chatty. If you don’t want to be drawn into those conversations, you will need the ability to draw boundaries silently, verbally, and occasionally more. You’ll need to plan ahead on being willing to ignore another person, having visible indicators you don’t want to be interrupted, seating yourself away from others, having a script for saying you don’t want to talk, being prepared to get up and walk away, or other strategies.

Sometimes it can be dangerous. There are risks in refusing to chat with someone who wants to, but there are also risks to deciding you do want to be drawn into conversation. Don’t mistake me for advising you to never talk to strangers, but also keep in mind that you have no idea who that person is and what their motives might be. It’s a hazard of getting to know anybody, and even more so in the forced intimacy of the enclosed and isolated space that is a plane, train, or bus, where you are already known to be away from home and perhaps by yourself. You can be lulled or tempted into revealing more about you and your circumstances than you might otherwise, giving the person you’re talking to or someone nearby details about your personal life, living situation, or professional activities. Most people are good folks, but remember that some may want to scam you, steal from you, or share the secrets you tell more widely than you intend.

But regardless of all that, sometimes it can be fun or educational. We might meet someone with an unexpected connection, like having once lived where we have. We might meet someone who works in a profession we find fascinating, and who is willing to regale us with stories of what they have done. We might learn about a place or a life that we might not otherwise have been exposed to, except that we were in the same place for a few hours. Passing the time with someone we normally wouldn’t can enrich our lives in incalculable ways as they open a window into a new part of the world, and give us a perspective we might not have run across before. Witnessing something together or being amused-frustrated at the same thing can open you to a conversation that occupies you for the rest of your travels, and those moments of connection can be a good thing, better than the work, reading, or sleep you were planning to catch up on.

Hi, I'm Annette.

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