What if every single encounter you have today matters? You’ll probably say: of course every encounter matters, and then – if you are anything like me – you’ll go about your day in your own bubble and forget about it. Countless times I’ve stood at the self-service checkout in Scotmid, in my own bubble, checking my phone without so much as a nod to the person in front of, or behind me. I’m not suggesting we all become bothersome over-sharers, but I’ve come to the conclusion that acknowledging each other in the course of the mundane tasks of one’s day, does matter.
I was waiting for a late train at Waverley station last Friday night. It was freezing and I was padded up like an American football quarterback. I came down one set of steps from the direction of East Market Street, shivering as I looked up at the screens. The train I was meeting – London Kings Cross, East Coast Mainline – was running late. Ten minutes behind schedule, it wasn’t really enough time for me to go back to the car, blast the heat and warm up. Looking around me, I paced up and down to keep warm. There were some static billboards: visit the Edinburgh Christmas markets; take a bus tour; purchase family tickets for the zoo. Then I noticed a curious advert sponsored by The Samaritans (although their branding was not obvious). The advert simply encouraged commuters and rail travellers to speak to each other. Called, ‘Small Talk Saves Lives’, it suggested people stop and have a chat as they waited for their train; nothing much required, just a few words. The research behind it is that some suicidal people have reported they didn’t go through with their suicide simply because a stranger spoke to them. Not that we should scan platforms, profile individuals, and stage interventions. No. It’s just a reminder to speak; that the seemingly meaningless, can be very meaningful. Who would have thought we could ‘evolve’ to such a point where we need adverts to remind us to speak to each other? I find it, in equal parts, intriguing and sad.
Last week I read a news story about how we are becoming less willing to speak to homeless people. Research (commissioned by ‘Charity Street Soccer Scotland’) showed that two thirds of Scots never stop to speak to the homeless. Whist the research was conducted in Scotland, I’m sure the figures are similar (if not worse) elsewhere. It went on to say that 41% of those sampled were ‘fearful’ to approach the homeless, and the least likely to stop and talk were 16 to 24 year olds.
We can view small talk as being superficial, pointless, a veneer that protects us from true authenticity, but it doesn’t have to be any of those things. You are unlikely to have a deep and meaningful conversation with the guy sitting on the street outside Tesco-metro with his Costa-coffee cup half full of change, or on a railway platform, or in a supermarket checkout queue. However, you might make someone feel they are less of a cog in a machine if you interact with them. My wise friend C. tells me that when we follow our true natural path, that – without fail – we will meet every single person we are supposed to meet on this journey. The only exception to this is worrying that you won’t.
I’m reminded of an old, classic, 1945 British movie called ‘Brief Encounter’, that is set around a chance meeting at a railway station. In it, a respectable middle-class housewife (Laura) takes the train to town every Thursday to shop and go to the cinema. On her way back from her Thursday routine, another male passenger helps remove a piece of grit from her eye (alarm bells!). There follows a series of encounters, not really an affair – not as we might define it these days – but not correct conduct, for any era, never mind 1945. It all ends in tears, on a smoke-filled platform, train pulling out, Laura travelling home to her husband, the stranger never to be seen again. I hope your encounter is not as dramatic or heart wrenching as that of the old black and white movie. I hope you have many heart-warming encounters, and make connections that begin to break up that feeling that Pink Floyd described so well in song: “all in all you’re just another brick in the wall.”