On Talking to Strangers

Each Thursday I will be pulling something from my personal writing archives to share until the archives run out! Buckle in for some poetry, short stories, personal essays, and book reviews!

I thought that I would start with one of my favorite genres, personal nonfiction. I wrote this piece while studying abroad in London in the spring of 2011. Like any artist with something sitting in their writing folders, I have tinkered with it over the years and will probably continue to do so. The latest small change came in honor of a cat who brought me some comfort with the loss of my dog Bandit. This is one of the pieces that has repeatedly come back to me over the years with particular lines taking on deeper meanings with new life experiences.

Old Ben
This photo of me by Big Ben was taken by two lovely older ladies I met on the tube and had a nice chat with. They insisted I have a photo with Big Ben. While I do not write about this particular interaction in the essay, given its context I felt it a fitting addition.

On Talking to Strangers

By Kylie Louise McCormick


To You

STRANGER! if you, passing, meet me, and desire to speak to me, why

should you not speak to me?

And why should I not speak to you?

Walt Whitman


I have always had a fascination with strangers.  From observing them unnoticed from afar or speaking with them as if they were old friends, I repeatedly reach out to the unknown.  My friends and family have all experienced the odd sensation of being with me when a stranger reveals a socially inappropriate amount of themselves.  A woman will tell me, moments after we have met, about her children at home, hungry and waiting for her as she works her double shift.  Her eyes look tired and I give her the best smile of encouragement I can.  A man with tattoos on his neck will approach me from behind while I am at the self-check-out.  He will ask me for advice on what type of flower to buy.  He explains that he told his girlfriend his heart was a plant and like a plant, she had to take care of it.  Now he wants to buy a literal plant to symbolize his metaphoric heart.  I stand and mull over the hardier plants with him.  Yes, I admit that I approach strangers and pull them towards me with simple hellos.  Yet, recognize now that strangers also approach me.

I am currently living in the great city of the unapproachable: London.  The outward, cultural personality is alien to my own.  The natives are reserved and will not readily smile at each other on the street.  I expected my time here to be a brief vacation from my ongoing affair with strangers.  I was wrong.  The advice repeated to me before I came was, “Don’t smile; they will know you aren’t British if you smile.”  It is true. While laughing on the tube a man not from London leans in to tell me he knows I am American because I am smiling.  Still, I stay smiling at the rain, the height of the buildings lining my daily walks, and the very basic thrill of just being here. Two very different men size me up while taking my daily stroll down the pavement.  One wears a long, tattered brown coat and his voice belches with alcohol, “Cute, but innocent.”  He runs into the Plexiglas protecting a bus stop bench from rain.  I stop smiling and quicken my pace.  A day or two later, a clean-shaven man, in a tidy business suit, briefcase in one hand and newspaper tucked neatly under an arm, observes, “Cute, but innocent.”  I stop smiling in general.

Part of me wonders if it is my smile that pulls strangers to me.  Perhaps my teeth reflect like a neon sign welcoming anyone and my dimples relax social barriers.  Friends have told me that I am too friendly, usually after a stranger approaches and asks if they can perform a scene from a play they have written.  My warm nature to the unknown makes my father anxious. He critiques my tendency to look people in the face as I pass and to flash a friendly smile or rural town nod. I decide to challenge myself socially while easing the fears of those closest to me.  I will become observant of the phrase, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”  I work to erase my face, to look past strangers, and to make it easier to command the unknown to forget me.  Assimilation means that my habitual and leisurely observations of the natives take on a more studious form.  Admittedly, I break the local social rules and boundaries by openly staring at the public around me.  Yet from my near scientific study, I teach my body the foreign language of the British people living in London.  I perfect the single person queue while waiting for the tube.  I stand in a crowded train and observe everyone, without looking directly at anyone.  And finally, I learn the rules of the intricate bumper car game that is walking the London pavements and I play exceedingly well.  I blend so well that Londoners stop and ask me for directions.  I wonder, do they ask someone else once I walk away?  My accent still marks me as foreign if body language does not.

This new body language does not stop the strangers from finding me.  I must be wrong about my smile, even without my billboard teeth the strangers approach. I am still the one signaled out from my single person queue to be asked about the delays on the tube and pulled into a conversation. I walk away from the tube and to the bus stop in the evening.

“Are you cold?”  The man’s name is Paul and he works as a freelance journalist.

“No,” I begin and we end sitting next to each other on the bus. He laughs at my observations of culture and vigorously agrees, nodding his head and putting his hand up between us to mock the fact that he shouldn’t, by his own social standards, be talking to me.  Yet, he is, and he makes jokes about the Beatles and tells me how he is tired.  I had previously prepared myself for lengthy socially acceptable conversations about the weather, yet he never once mentions rain.  Instead, he asks questions about me, who I am, why I am here, and what I want to do with my life.  He likewise eagerly answers any questions I have for him.

“Nice to meet you,” he smiles genuinely, shaking my hand as I leave the bus.

There are those who narrow this down and say, “he was hitting on you” or “he was trying to pick you up.”  But I am not that naïve.  I know when a man is trying to pick me up and when a person is reaching out and making a human connection.  Paul seems lonely: a freelance journalist closing in on his late thirties and living alone.  He strikes me as the type who would have a pet, probably a cat purring on his chest to wake him in the morning or a fish he watches swim late at night in his flat when he cannot sleep.  He enjoys our conversation because when was the last time he had a conversation that held him to no standard?  I am not sure if Paul and I would make great friends, but he can pretend that I am whoever he wants me to be because people never repeat in London and he and I will never again meet.

There is a cardinal rule when dealing with strangers: Nobody holds up to the stranger standard.  An unknown person can be whomever your mind wants; a stranger just adds a face and maybe a name to this personage.  If you attach ideals to this person, they cease to be real and if pursued they will disappoint you.  Do not talk to these strangers.


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