Stranger Danger

My granddad always said that you should talk to everyone you meet – the worst they can do is ignore you and for all you know, you might be the only person to talk to them that day. Then again, he also said that Guinness was a cure-all medicine, and (eventually) that there was a family of tiny Sikhs living on the garden windowsill. But technicalities aside, I think his advice should be heeded in our increasingly antisocial world.

In September I was occasionally mistaken by Freshers as one of their own, and bombarded with a level of stranger-friendliness usually only practiced by people dressed as giant mice in theme parks. It saddened me when I had to reveal that I am in fact a final year – just one step away from a wizened old hag. Why is it we feel that, once friendship ties are made, we must defend them by no longer bounding merrily up to strangers? The answer is quite obvious, and unavoidable – people will think you’re weird. A risk some are willing to take, but most prefer to keep up the appearance of sanity.

Recently, I lost my iPod. This may seem of no interest to you – in fact, it’s probably not – but bear with me. Waiting for things, without the friendly cocoon of music to enfold you, is rather boring. Time at bus stops, waiting for appointments, being early to meet a friend; it seems far too much of my life is spent standing and staring into space. But considering my aforementioned grandparental advice, I decided to be sociable. Horrifically, embarrassingly sociable, even toward people who looked as if they’d rather eat their own foot than talk to me. And so, I came to a few conclusions.

First off – if you too feel the need to strike up conversations at bus stops, old people are by far your best bet. Coming from the land before time/iPods, they’re more open to amiable chatting. The only time my plan backfired was when I eagerly began talking to one elderly gent who, it turned out, spoke very little English. I was torn – I’d committed myself to the conversation now, and to make matters worse, I was sitting next to him on a bus, so there was no escape (at least not for the next 15 minutes or so). I couldn’t back out now. I decided to soldier on, despite the growing look of perplexity on his face. Using mainly mime and some interpretive dance, we ascertained that indeed it was horrible weather, and also that he was going to visit his daughter. How nice! After 3 or 4 minutes he seemed to decide that I was clearly mad, or on speed, so he laughed along. I feel sure that was he young enough to have Facebook, I would now be his online friend.

Failing an old person, drunks are also good for a chat, provided they’re not too far gone. They are also quick to take you on as a close friend and confidante. I was told by a morose, swaying banker that he now pretends to be a conservatory salesman at parties. However, one jolly but slurring fellow decided our relationship, in the 10 minutes we’d known each other, had progressed far beyond friendship and began to serenade me with Justin Timberlake’s ‘Will you be my girlfriend?’ Touching though this was, I realised it might be time to scale back on the drunk-sociability.

Conversations with sober under-60s proved very rocky ground. Children, obviously, are something of a no-no. We all remember the ‘stranger danger’ talks at school, though the point was lost on me, as I remember coming away from it with a sense that I’d been swindled in some way as no stranger had ever offered me sweets. But aside from the fact that children rarely cross the path of undergraduates, talking to a child to whom you are not related is a risky business. Daily Mail reporters lurk menacingly behind bushes, using lost-looking children as bait, dying to leap out and yell “PAEDO!” at any concerned citizen who stops to ask the child if they’re alright.

Another thing you need to take into consideration is where your friendliness is forced on your victims. The queue outside your tutor’s office, fine; the waiting room in Cripps Health Centre, potentially disastrous. “So, er, what’s wrong with you? Genital warts, you say?”

I’m trying to keep up with my new resolution, despite the lack of sympathy I sometimes receive, my greetings being met with silence, profanity or, once, an impression of a dog (that man, I’m glad to say, made even me look normal). But perhaps some of the people I’ve talked to – especially dogman – actually enjoyed passing the time with a chat, rather than further meditation on the pointlessness of existence. Then again, perhaps the fact that my granddad eventually invented people to talk to should be a warning to me. Talking to strangers? That way lies madness…

Lucy Hayes


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