We’re told not to as children. Yet at some point in our adult lives, we reflect on how sad it is to live in a society in which strangers rarely speak to each other. It’s often said how cold Londoners are, how ridiculous it is to avoid tube conversations at all costs.
Yet on those infrequent occasions when it does happen, it occurs to me that our English propensity to avoid talking to strangers is perhaps wise.
I was recently on a skiing holiday in Switzerland, a place that my grandmother, who lives there, is constantly championing as superior to England. “People are SO friendly here,” she insists, in a way that means agreement is the only valid response.
And friendly they were. In just three days that we spent up the mountain, my friend and I struck up chairlift conversations with a builder who fixed my grandmother’s neighbour’s roof, a Swiss man who recommended the best skiing spots and a ski instructor who invited us for drinks. Ok there may have been ulterior motives on that last one.
Alpine life was blissfully friendly. The bartender who greeted us remembered our faces on the slopes the next day. Some English chaps we met in a bar not only paid for all our drinks, they also confided their idea for a novel with me (that’s another story, which doesn’t end so nicely).
Just when I had decided that talking to strangers is fantastic, the way forward in generating a friendly public atmosphere, we came to leave Switzerland via train to the airport. Boarding the ever punctual Swiss train, my friend and I settled in to the generous seats and took out our books – Ah, a relaxing journey awaited! The train sped silently around lake Geneva while we munched Gruyere sandwiches and sat in contented contemplation of our three days of fresh air, mountain views and piste cruising.
Two stops in, a plump thirty-something man joins our foursome of seats. There are plenty of other seats free, I note. Very promptly, in the most softly-spoken French, he enquires if we are English. On holiday? And so begins our conversation.
Fantastic, I think, a last chance to practise my French before we get home. My friend, who speaks good school French but clearly isn’t in the mood, bows out early on, turning to the window and delving into her book. I see, I think. I’m on my own for this one.
What starts as perfectly pleasant small talk soon gets a bit too detailed. I’m a journalist, I tell him, print. ‘Ah so you’re traditional’, he says with a smile.
He’s a social worker. He launches into a rambling over share of the difficulties of Swiss social work, the various brackets of welfare, the problematic families. The train rumbles loudly and his voice is so whispery that I struggle to hear, understand or care about what he is talking about.
I desperately want to finish Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman. I’m holding it out, thumb in my place in a highly indicative manner. Every now and then the conversation pauses and I reopen the book, only for the man to resume his infuriatingly dull monologue. I nod and try to make the right noises, but I’ve totally lost the thread.
Finally, he disembarks at Lausanne. I am delighted. My friend and I share exasperated looks – what an appalling failure to perceive our evident desire for a peaceful journey.
On the plane we must unfortunately separate, as Easyjet’s booking system made coordination impossible. Perhaps a handsome man will sit next to me and it will be just like a scene from a film, I think.
Instead, a 70-something year-old man plonks himself down. He quickly starts to open up about his retirement to Switzerland, how dull the place that I skied at was, how exhausting his 9 grandchildren are…
I fall asleep. When I awake with a start, the man – who is ridiculously close to me already – leans in and says, ‘Did you know you jerk when you sleep?’
Yes, I reply flatly. For God’s sake. I’m at altitude, sitting in an upright plasticated chair. Of course my slumber doesn’t resemble Sleeping Beauty.
Reuniting with my friend at the luggage carousel, she’s decidedly chipper.
She sat next to a handsome, intelligent and funny young man, with whom she got on like a house on fire. He even offered her a lift from the airport, which she loyally declined, having me in tow.
There you have it, the incontrovertible proof that the merit of talking to strangers completely and utterly depends on the attributes of said stranger. One simply cannot assign a ‘one size fits all’ policy to such an unpredictable gamble.
With a charismatic young man it may be a delight, yet with a 70-year old who tells you that you jerk in your sleep, you’d rather everyone concerned kept their mouth shut, like the good British public know best.