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Stranger #2 Petey, Canberra Airport

Fear


I have never found it difficult to chat to people I have not met before.  I like to engage with people while standing in queues, browsing the aisles of supermarkets or while on walks or  buses.  Last week I had a friend arrive from Melbourne, by plane, so thought nothing of leaving early to wait for his arrival,

Image: Canberra International Airport

anticipating this time being spent talking to someone I had not met before.  I rewatched Kio Stark’s Ted Talk about why talking to strangers is good for us and tips on how to do it before I left so I would be armed with different strategies on how to engage if I encountered any hesitation.  


Kio Stark tells us that her chats with strangers are ‘liberating moments’.  She describes the moment when told to step back from the gutter of a busy street in New York City by an old man standing on the curb.  At this moment Stark felt the man’s happiness, his calm and the bond between the two of them.  She had been noticed, she was worth saving.  She used her senses instead of her fear.  


We are told from a young age, to be watchful of strangers, to steer clear, do not engage. Kio Stark explains to her four year old ‘it is good to be friendly’ as a response to ‘are (these people) friends?’.  As an adult Stark knows that not all people on the streets are safe to talk to, but building fear and using the categories we all think in (male, female, good, bad, black, white) excludes the safe interactions.



I am sitting at the airport gate waiting for the plane.  There are a few people around.  Many people still on holiday after Christmas, arriving home or taking off for destinations within Australia.  The airport piped music can just be heard above the hum of noise from people waiting.  Most people are on their phones; scrolling,

Image: Canberra International Airport

watching or reading.  One man is watching an American football game.  I know this as he does not have earphones and everyone at the gate is subjected to the commentary of the game.  I sit next to a woman who is busy with her phone.  I think of things I could say to her, then she gets a call.  The only way I can tell this is because she starts to speak.  As I had not heard a ringtone, I thought she was talking to me.  I realise she has earbuds which are obscured from view by a large quantity of long hair.  She moves away from the gate to chat, picking up her things as she goes.  I move up.  Ready with the conversation topics.  As I turn towards a man who had been dozing off, he  leaps up and rushes off.  Is it me?  No, he is also on a call.  I change position to another row of seats.


Opposite me is a large group of South Pacific Islanders.  About 20 of them, all ages.  The youngest, a few weeks old, is being swaddled by an older woman.  Toddlers and close to school age children sprawled over parents with a couple of them making a run for it with adults close behind.  I sit on a large, hard, red foot stool and watch the interactions of this group, forgetting the conversation I had in mind and why I was there.  


A young boy in shorts and a t-shirt with pictures of Vegemite approaches me to jump on the footstool; there is room for us both.  “I’m Petey and I’m 5, and these are my cousins” pointing to two younger children.  There is an adult hovering with a younger child squirming in his arms.  Another child joins Petey: “He’s three and she is just one” he says pointing to the youngest one who is now joining the two boys on the footstool.  They all bounce.  “I’m Vicki, I’m 61”.  Petey looks at me wide-eyed and responds, “My grandpa isn’t THAT old!”.  “Why are you here?” he asks, “Where are you going?”.  I explain I am not going anywhere but waiting for my friend. I ask him if he, and the rest of his clan, are off on holidays.  The adult steps in, they are here to farewell his mother, Petey’s gran, as she returns to Samoa for a holiday.  I tell Petey I have been to Samoa and loved it; he tells me he has only been to Melbourne.  This conversation goes on while Petey is jumping, rolling and flicking the ears of his younger cousins.  They are both sucking dummies so it is a little difficult for them to speak in a way that I understand.


The group stands, as one, and they take turns in hugging the older woman, who has tears in her eyes.  Maybe picking up on the vibe, the baby is howling.  The older woman heads off through the doors to the International Flights.  I ask the adult with Petey how long she is going for. “A week” he states.  I think about the last time I went overseas.  I was dropped at the terminal by my husband as he was on his way somewhere else.  


Even though I am confident with talking to strangers, always have been, there is still fear there.  I can overcome my category thinking and use my senses but there is still a moment when I am not sure, I hesitate.  This is the ‘subjunctive moment’ described by Will Buckingham in “Hello, Stranger.”  It is the moment when neither of the participants knows which way this is going to go.  Is this stranger a killer or lover? A chatter or silent type? Or more likely, will they like me?  Chats with other people do not always end well.


Jonathan Dunne got tired of sitting on his silent daily commute into London each day and he reasoned if he felt this way then others did too.  In 2016 he handed out free badges to people stating “Tube Chat?”, inviting people to talk.  While some of the response on social media was positive, The Guardian ran an article explaining the horror other commuters felt about the possibility of being talked to while on the tube.  People took to Twitter expressing their alarm: “Some irresponsible fool trying to undermine the fabric of society by

Image: Twitter


encouraging talking on the London Underground”. Other badges were made: “Don’t even think about talking to me.” Or worse, “Shut Up”.  Transport for London tried to find out who started this campaign, partly as Dunne was using their branding, but also because “This sort of stuff is dangerous; we don’t want people to get confused”.  (About what?)



Dunne, an American, tried different ways to get his work colleagues in the NHS in London to become more sociable.  He organised a sports day to mark the Olympics in 2000. Races, catering and ice-creams all went to waste as only 30 of a possible 1000 plus turned up.  The ice-creams went to strangers on the street. 

Image: Wikipedia. Click on image to learn how to play

International Bacon Day was also a failure.  Sandwiches and games (Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon) organised by Dunne and his social committee saw people turn up for the food but they would not stay for games and fun.


The lesson Dunne took from this was British people do not want to talk to each other much, but more so in a post Brexit world.  He also got support.  Other people took up the idea and handed out Tube Chat? badges at other railway stations, to encourage chatter.  


The fear of talking to strangers is real.  It is not about the person being an abductor or killer but about being rejected.  Research shows that people assume, often incorrectly, that they will not be liked, or they will not like the person they approach.  They also assume, again, incorrectly, that any conversation will be awkward and stilted and generally unpleasant.  The research also looked at the third fear that is held by many: that they will be unable to cease the conversation at an appropriate time and will be trapped by the stranger, or they will be unable to be a competent conversation partner.


Looking at meta-data from several studies about interactions and fears of strangers, Gillian Sandstrom and Erica Boothby (2020) teased out the three fears the research subjects had: conversational enjoyment, interpersonal liking and conversational ability.  Although the methods and measures used in each study they looked at were different,  there was overlap and they all concluded the same thing: people are more fearful or worried about the possibility of conversations than having the actual conversations. The conversations

always go better than expected and it makes the people involved feel better about themselves adding to their sense of well-being.  Their meta study asks the question: why do people give up the chance to have an easy way for better wellbeing with meaningful interaction with others?


What is it I fear, sitting at the airport looking for people to talk to?  I do not usually worry about how the conversation is going to go or what we are going to talk about, but I do worry about flexing my vocal muscles in the space of someone else: are they really busy, reading meeting papers that should have been done beforehand, are they watching an important, to them, video with their grandchild scoring a goal for the first time, in some far off country? Do they need this time, waiting at the airport, to be still and calm as they get so little of this at home?    We can all put up barriers to the outside world but phones are a recent introduction that keeps people out so effectively.


Most times the conversations I have start naturally.  I do not have to resort to Stark’s methods of interaction she advocates in her Ted Talk (eyecontact; triangulation - street art nearby or bad pavements or late buses; noticing - compliment shoes, or shirt; or using a third party like a dog or a baby).  But sometimes I am surprised with how the conversations begin, especially when I am not the instigator.

  

Last year on a cruise I was sitting on a table on my own, with many empty tables around me, when a woman sat down next to me and launched into “The food is great here”.  She was my age, dressed for the pool with floaty top, short shorts and bright red sandals. There was no eye contact, no “Is anyone sitting here?” or “Can I join you?”, she just plonked down her plate, and her body, and launched into conversation.  I found out that she was on the cruise as part of a big group of multiple generations; family and friends all on board to celebrate a 60th birthday.  She did not say whose. She was sick of them all so had decided to do her own thing and avoid them. “It is a good job the boat is so big and there are so many things to do”.  She had not seen either of her teenage sons for days.  Each meal time she was going to sit next to someone she had not met and talk to them.  “It's not as if they can get away from me” she joked, nodding her head in the direction of the vast ocean.  We talked about what she liked about the cruise, how she had really enjoyed the stop at Port Vila, Vanuatu and how she had pushed herself to jump off the highest platform at the Blue Lagoon.  She told me that once she had decided to ditch her group she felt less encumbered and therefore open to new possibilities: “Being away from home and family allows you to do things you want to but won’t because of the fear of being judged”.  Wise words.  It is often fear that holds me back.


Petey is fearless.  He jumps up to a stranger telling them who he is and how old he is and wanting me to watch him jump, run and hug his cousins. That woman, whose name I never got, on the cruise was fearless. Maybe I should take a lesson from them and just launch in like they did?  “Hello my name is Vicki.  I am 61 and I like talking to people”, “Hello, I’m Vicki.  I am just going to chat to you for a while”.  Kio Stark did not mention this as a strategy.


The plane I am waiting for arrives.  I take my leave of Petey and his adult who are still gathering children, prams, balls, shoes and the rest of the group, even though the grandmother is long gone.  The adult turns to me and says, with real warmth, “Have a good time with your friend.”  as he gently nudges his charge towards the exit.

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