{16/11/2012}   To talk or not to talk to people you don’t know well

I caught the train to work yesterday morning and as I came up the ramp onto the platform, I spotted a guy I have met through work a few times and with whom I have previously chatted (at work) about where we live and our commute.  I have seen him a few times but we have only ever spoken at work and once to talk about having seen each other on the train and around town.  So, as usual, today I put my head down and scurried to my end of the platform, relieved at not having had to make conversation.  But then I thought it was a bit pathetic as I know he saw me too, so at St Pancras, instead of loitering behind him, I surged forward and said hello.  I felt quite brave and we had a brief chat until he went to the Tube and me to another train.  But why the issues about talking to people like that?

I have had similar experiences before about not wanting to speak to someone I’ve recognised and who I know has also recognised me.  However, if somebody approaches me, I don’t always wish they wouldn’t have!  Yesterday, I realised if I had gone straight up to him, I would have probably ended up sitting with him and maybe even chatting all the way to London.  I don’t know, what is etiquette for such things?  I guess I could have chatted on the platform then announced I had work to do, or whatever, so sat elsewhere or walked further along the platform once the train arrived.  But that seems rude.  But it shouldn’t be, should it?  He seems a nice bloke, it’s not like he’s someone I want to avoid.  But what do we talk about?  For the maybe two minutes we chatted yesterday, we talked about the work environment we had in common.  Obvious.  The next topic of conversation would have been Folkestone and a possible discussion on the commute.  But then what?  Nose in book?

Is it the surprise element that troubles people or perhaps seeing people outside of the very narrow context in which you are acquaintances?  Once outside your sphere of mutual knowledge, you are different people and not all, for example, work colleague relationships are destined to progress into social friendships.  When I regularly worked in the Royal Courts of Justice, I would almost daily see a particular photographer outside.  I don’t know why I remembered this one more than others, as I’m sure there were others out there on a daily basis too, but he was almost part of my work routine.  One day, I was out in a pub and there he was.  I felt like a stalker, it felt wrong.  I stared at him because I felt I knew him really well but didn’t actually know him; it was surreal.  In the maybe three years I regularly saw him, we never said hello or even smiled and it was really weird to be facing him in our respective social lives yet not speak to or acknowledge each other, though I know he knew who I was too.

With people like that, is it that you don’t want to be friends with them?  I don’t think that’s it.  But why the reluctance to speak to them or even acknowledge them?  Is it all a bit British?  Is it a fear of revealing ourselves to be dull; after all, small talk is not the most riveting form of communication?  Is it that when we’re going to or from work, the odds are we’ll sit quietly/snooze/daydream/email/read and we’ll do that because that’s how we want to spend our commute?  I don’t know, but I do know that it felt like a bit of a relief to actually talk to the bloke I often see on my train and who I know and who I know knows me and who I know knows that I’ve seen him and who knows that I know he’s seen me.


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