Last night I experienced something totally unique.
I was catching a train home from London Kings Cross to Grantham. Not an exceptional activity by any means, I’ve done it many times – it’s a direct route, and the train normally departs from platform 4 or 5.
I had reserved a seat, but saw that a carriage prior to mine was close to empty, so took the opportunity and grabbed one of the unreserved seats in that carriage. An empty space next to me, a plug, room in the overhead locker (so tons of legroom) – I had achieved the dream of every commuter.
Space, peace, and power. Hurrah!
I plugged in my phone, selected a playlist (McFly – no judgement please, this is a safe space) and started to eat my dinner (a hoisin duck wrap from M&S, 10/10 would recommend).
But just as I’d started chewing, a young girl asked if the seat next to me was taken.
I looked up, and smiled (begrudgingly). ‘Nope!’ I responded, ‘…take a seat lovely.’
Internally, I sighed. I wanted peace, I wanted to be able to stretch out, and I had a feeling that she… god forbid… wanted to chat.
She asked me to watch her bags and phone whilst she nipped to the loo. I agreed and when she returned she asked where I was getting off. From that quick question, a conversation began, and it was obvious that she wanted to talk. Not chat. Talk. Talk and be listened to.
Without going into too much detail, this girl was under 18 and is currently in the care system. She’d just been to visit a relative, and took great pleasure in showing me a photo album she’d been given, documenting all of the family she’d never met. Like Mum and Dad. She said it so casually. Yet it’s a remark I can’t stop thinking about.
She talked about everything from Disney to false nails. I quietly listened, and asked questions – not probing ones, just picking up on points of interest. We had a discussion about her favourite type of pizza… and all of the reasons why she absolutely LOVES ‘The Greatest Showman’. It was an eclectic mix of chatter, but I loved just sitting and listening. It was clear that she loved being listened to.
I’m not writing this to make me out to be some sort of hero. In fact, I am anything but. My internal groan when she initially asked to sit down was, I’m sure, heard by the entirety of Kings Cross. I did not want to talk. I did not want to engage. I wanted to switch off. In short – I simply couldn’t be bothered.
But I’m so glad I did. Scratch that. I’m so glad she did.
She was funny, bright and caring. She offered me some of her sweets before she’d even taken one. I didn’t even think to offer her one of my beloved M&S mini rolls.
We’d obviously come from such different worlds, and I realised how much I had, and took for granted, that she didn’t. It was incredibly sobering.
As I got up to leave, I wished her the best of luck, and she promised to visit her local library and check out the Harry Potter books. We’d talked earlier about how she didn’t like reading. I suggested that maybe she just wasn’t reading the right things. I was surprised she’d remembered – that was right at the very beginning of our chat. Shows she was listening, not just talking.
Yesterday evening demonstrated the power and beauty of talking, and listening, to strangers. In a world that claims to be more connected than ever before, you only have to take one look around at a train station to realise this is not the case. It’s hard to find someone who isn’t staring at a screen.
So, try it next time the world presents you with an opportunity.
Catch someone’s eye on the bus? A simple – ‘How’s your day going?’ – could completely change their day… and yours. If this feels too friendly, start with the weather – sometimes a classic bit of British small talk is all it takes to open someone up. NB/ this phrase also works when waiting in a queue, whilst in a café, or just in the street etc.
We do it all the time in taxis (if you haven’t gotten into a taxi and said – ‘You been busy then mate?’ – then you’re not normal, I’m sorry). So let’s do it more often elsewhere.
You never know what someone is going through, how they are feeling, what they are dealing with, or where they are going – but if you can be the difference between someone having a not-so-great day – to a great day – well, I think that’s pretty damn magical.