Who is That Stranger Sitting Next to You?

by Nancy Means Wright

I was stunned by a scene I’ve been reading in Mary Pearce’s historical Apple Tree Saga, when blinded by gas, a wounded British soldier has lost his way during the  WW I battle of La Bouleau,  and blunders into a German trench occupied by a single German infantryman. The latter offers water, bread, a warm (German) overcoat, and a life-saving wound-dressing. Neither speaks the other’s language; nevertheless, they exchange names and slowly become friends. That is, until a contingent of British infantry arrive and when Tom, waking up, asks where his new friend is, a soldier replies: “What, that bloody German? He’s bloody well dead, with 3 or 4 bullets in his rotten carcass.”

I was too devastated to read on. The irony of war!

This is a fictional account, but as everyone knows, Brits and Germans would now and then fraternize across enemy lines in moments of compassionate truce.  I think, too, of what we warn our children: Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t make eye contact. And bad things can happen.  Patricia Highsmith seized on this possibility in her psychological thriller, Strangers on a Train, in which two strangers agree to exchange killings of unwanted family members.

Yet how much do we lose by sitting in a train or airplane, elbows virtually touching, but not a word or smile exchanged? I read in the NY Times a while back that two behavioral scientists approached commuters in a Chicago train station and invited them to try an experiment. One group was asked to open a conversation with a seatmate and the other group to keep to themselves.  By the end of the ride, the commuters who spoke to a seatmate reported a much happier experience than for those who kept quiet. And not one person reported being snubbed.

For myself, I am so aware of the person beside me that I find it difficult, in such proximity, to maintain an un-neighborly silence–unless the seatmate obviously desires solitude by popping on ear buds, or burying himself in a smart phone. Too bad! For myself, I’ve met all manner of interesting people on trains and airplanes, including an African-American artist who showed me photos of his delightful gallery exhibitions, and then an editor who invited me to send a poem to her lit mag–which she ultimately published.  And I always keep flyers of my books in my purse, so if the stranger asks what I do–well, out they come!

Speaking to a stranger is especially helpful for a writer in search of offbeat secondary characters.  Even the woman with the exotic tattoos who bumps into me on a city street and starts a quick conversation can enhance not only my daily well being, but become a bit player in a book. I’ve turned people of all cultures and mindsets into fictional characters for stories and poems–even an eccentric individual I’ve only briefly made eye contact with. And as I walk down a street it’s a deep pleasure to smile and be smiled at by a passerby I don’t know.

For some reason this smile happens more with women than with men–perhaps because the gender taboo rears its foolish head. Does he think I’m coming on to him?  As I grow older, of course, it becomes easier to breach the gap. And what is more depressing than to have someone pass by as if through air–as if one is invisible! The feeling of “disconnect” can be unbearable.

The photographer Richard Renaldi has made a living, in part, by asking strangers on the street to touch or embrace one another. According to a review of his book, Touching Strangers,  Renaldi “creates a moment that wouldn’t otherwise have existed…and we weave narratives around the unlikely tenderness that might exist among strangers.”

So why not reach out to the next stranger you happen to be seated by? And let us know in a story or blog what happens? You don’t have to wait until you’re the only two misfits alive in a war (as described in my opening.)  And who knows–you might gain a wholly unexpected life friend!

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27 Responses

  1. Oh, no, you’ve outed me! I’m one of those who puts on my headphones and opens a book or a folder and buries myself . . . I try to be “friendly” of course, but not interact! I think because my daily life is defined by interaction — friends, family, FB, blogs (!) — I cherish especially a long flight where I can retreat from phones, emails, and lunches.
    As always, you’ve raised an interesting issue, Nancy, and given me a blog topic!

    • Great, Camille! You do have a good point. I’d be happy to see a blog refuting my “reach out to a stranger” thesis! On the other hand, I think the stranger offers an opportunity to expand one’s view–and one can’t confine oneself to mostly like-minded friends and family.

  2. Nancy, I’m one who usually talks to people when possible. However, I have learned to be a little careful — too bad, but necessary sometime.
    Thanks for the blog.

    • Thanks for this, Betty. And true, there are times when one must draw back and carefully assess a situation–and a stranger. Yet there can be missed opportunities!

  3. When I first moved north from the mid-Atlantic nearly twenty years ago, I braced myself for the classic New England reserve. Much to my surprise, I have yet to go to the grocery store without speaking to someone, even if it’s just “hello.” I eavesdrop shamelessly and have to restrain my impulse to join conversations. Like you, Nancy, I’ve met fascinating folks who end up coloring my books and/or enriching my life. And sometimes boring me to tears, to be honest. Face it, we’re a social species, and our self-imposed isolation is unhealthy.

    • Good for you, Nikki! One must take risks, and I’m glad you’re taking advantage of a chance to at least say “hello.” And eavesdropping is another topic I like to explore. I do it often, and get ideas for stories. But of course if I don’t know the speakers I don’t usually enter their conversations. Although this gives me an idea for a story….

  4. My personality closely resembles that of a golden retriever. I like everybody and just assume they’ll like me back. I’ve made some absolutely delightful contacts on planes, in stores etc. and there is nothing like networking to sell books! My most recent plane ride ended up with a wonderful FB friendship and a new raving fan!

    • Wonderful, Cindy! I can just imagine you on a plane with your friendly golden retriever smile and fresh, funny conversation. I expect some of these conversations go into one or another of your delightful books.
      And networking, yes–gaining “raving” fans. I can see them leaping up into the aisle of the plane and hollering Read This Great Book!

  5. I confess my husband is much more outgoing than I am. He often gets involved in conversations with strangers who suddenly seem like friends. That’s his nature. And he will draw me in although I’m a bit more reserved. I do notice on NYC subways that people tend not to interact much, giving a bit of respectful space in situations where they are crammed in like sardines.

    • An interesting thought, Jacquie: the crowded subway–the need to respect one another’s privacy. Although I recall a subway in Paris where I made eye contact (but not voice) with a French girl, who got off on my stop, then stooped to pick up a bag with 3 books I’d dropped–then smiled when I thanked her. And kept smiling when I responded to her in French. (Or maybe she was laughing at my accent!) A quick interaction, but it made me feel good.

  6. I spent much of my life traveling alone, and reaching out to strangers was often my only human contact. In recent years, due to changing life circumstances I am less open to new acquaintances. http://www.dkchristi.com Author of Ghost Orchid

    • I’d love to hear more about your years of traveling alone, DK: in a van, or hitchhiking? I can see how strangers would be a major force in your life at that point. But sorry you can only be less open now. You’ve met strangers online, though–and interact with them!

  7. I had a great driving experience with my young son who was fascinated by the large trucks. For over 400 miles we kept seeing the same truck, each passing each other at different points. Finally, at a fork in freeways, we separated completely. He waved and tooted his horn and my son waved and I beeped my horn. It was weirdly like saying goodbye to a friend, no words ever spoken. http://www.dkchristi.com

    • Thanks for this, DK! Perfect example. I love this experience, even though no words were spoken. It is (literally) a moving experience. Sometimes one doesn’t need words to befriend a stranger. I’ll bet your son enjoyed the interaction.

  8. Never a refutation, Nancy! I agree completely on chance encounters, interesting “strangers,” and so on — just now and then a long ride with no phone and no one interrupting is a treat.

    • You’re so right. We can live in both worlds: loquacious and mute. Thanks, Camille: I always enjoy your honest words! Truly, if I didn’t have this writing urge, I’d have been a librarian. Talking to the books–a one-sided dialogue.

  9. I grew up in a corner grocery store and talking to strangers became second nature. I never know when story material is sitting next to me. Great blog.

    • So nice to hear from you, Shelley! And I can only imagine the chance to talk to strangers in your grocery store. For a dozen years I ran a craft shop in our barn, and did the same. All shapes, colors, heights, races, cultures coming in, and often wanting to tell their stories. After a while, as it undoubtedly happened with you, the strangers become friends.

  10. I’ve had very similar experiences in my encounters with strangers. I like to exchange a few pleasant words when I take my seat on a plane, perhaps to defuse the stress of boarding and jockeying for storage room. And there are a few people who nod and say hello back to me while I’m out walking. My husband, however, insists on saying hello to everyone he passes and waving to all the drivers. A lot of them now wave back. I wouldn’t go that far, but he insists he’s teaching me how to be civil. We do need more of that, more acknowledgment that we’re all here together. Lovely post, Nancy.

    • Thanks so much, Susan! And I know about waving to other drivers through my surrogate son (now son-in-law) who, like your husband, waves to everyone as he drives past in his ancient green pickup. And if they don’t wave back, I’ve noted–at least there’s a smile. And yes, this is what the world needs!

  11. Interesting blog, Nancy. Since I fly long-distance a lot (all the way to Hawaii and back to VA each winter), I sit beside many strangers. I’ve found that when talking with them they inevitably ask for my card w/my writer’s info. I’ve gotten emails from Alaska, California, and other far-away places telling me how much they enjoyed my books. Still awaiting the email from Japan! Thanks for jogging my memory.

    • Good going, Susan! This is a great way to sell–especially if you’re flying a long distance anyway. And I’m sure you’ve been able to make use of stories those strangers have to tell. I hope the email comes soon from Japan…

  12. Interesting topic as always, Nancy. As a native NYer, I have to say that I’d never talk to a stranger on the subway. Partly it’s caution, but partly it’s the subway culture of silence. Trains, though, are another story. When my husband and I traveled by train across the country and back we had great conversations with the people we met.

    • Interesting–that culture of silence. Perhaps some of it is caused by the loud noise of the subway? The crowding with people standing and hanging on? My spouse had his wallet stolen in a Paris metro–a reverse form of “connection”? But I’m glad you’ve had good conversations on trains. I have, too. Thanks for dropping by, Anita.

  13. A blog that spoke to a lot of us, as yours often do. That push-pull of privacy and wanting to reach out. How much do we want to know about the other person? How full of ourselves are we? How safe do we feel, and in which situations do we most comfortably risk telling more rather than less?

    I spend more time sitting on a bench in my front yard these days than in traveling. But people walk by on the way to the park or work. Some alone, some in groups, some with dogs, some with chilren, some with ear buds. I wave if my nose isn’t in a book, and say hi if I”m not on my own phone

    If I’ve made typos, sorry. I can’t see all my words.

    • No typos, Sara, and such evocative questions! How safe do we feel–yes! so important. And how full of ourselves are we–what are the risks? You should be the one writing this blog… You don’t have to be on a train or plane to meet people. How lovely to have a front yard where people walk by to a park… And I love the way you put it: “that push-pull of privacy and wanting to reach out.” This is indeed the heart of it. Thank you!

  14. […] Who is That Stranger Sitting Next to You? […]

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