The Irritations of Modern Life: 20: Strangers who want to talk by Ann Treneman

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The Independent Culture
I'M NOT big on prayer but I make an exception when it comes to public transport. I am not asking for a safe journey; even God cannot control molecules of frost on the rail line or airline runway fatigue. No, I am praying that no one talks to me. Now you may wonder if I am so vain as to think that a complete stranger would want to talk to me. But vanity has nothing to do with it. Some people will talk to anyone and, in my case, it is never just a chat. They want to tell me everything.

Prayer being unreliable, I have developed back-up behaviours aimed at inducing silence in anyone bar psychotic or religious fanatics. No eye contact is allowed. So when you get to your seat, under no circumstances should you even glance at the person beside you. If they say "Hello", mumble and start to read. Anything will do, though aeroplane vomit-bag instructions can get a bit tedious.

It is crucial that you do not react to anything your neighbour does. If they ask for a bit of your newspaper, hand it over without eye contact. If they talk on the phone, ignore it. If they sing, stare out of the window. I am so religious about this rule that once, on the last train home, I realised that everyone else had left the carriage except for me and my neighbour who, it transpired, had thrown up. Still, at least we didn't have to chat about it first.

Some people are more persistent than others. Women in headscarves are prone to chat. Ditto people travelling in a group - choir members, football fans, hen-night types. Sometimes you simply have to move. In the case of genuine psychotics, though, moving doesn't work: they follow you. The last one that sat beside me babbled the whole way, head jerking this way and that, with occasional attempts to set me and himself on fire. Eye contact was the least of my problems.

All this comes to mind because the other day I broke my own rule and paid the price. I was sprinting down a platform when I realised I didn't know where the train was going. I then made a fatal error. I initiated contact by shouting, "Where is this train going?" at a man running in front of me. "London," he shouted back. That is all it took.

On board, we should have become strangers again. But no. He wanted to talk. He told me about train times, the platform, his connecting train before going into his personal train history. He popped his briefcase, got the timetable out and started to read it to me. Then he decided I needed his help to buy a ticket. "You can buy one from the conductor," he said. He repeated this; then I made my second error: I replied. I said I thought I would wait for a bit. He grimaced. He disagreed. I demurred. The train started to move. "You can go and see the conductor now!" he said.

It was time to get serious. I opened my paper and began to practise my ritual avoidance technique. Soon, I noticed that the man had started to read the timetable to another man sitting across the aisle. Both seemed pleased, and were soon chatting away about timetables they had known and loved. Isn't it great when they find each other?