Make someone's day, chat.
It’s summer 1970 and I’m doing North America by Greyhound. My longest journey is the 947 miles from Vancouver to San Francesco. As the bus leaves Vancouver crossing over the Granville Bridge, I turn to speak to the English student sitting next to me: “Nice view.” He grunted a cursory reply. And that was it. Not a single word exchanged between us over the next 22 hours. I recall this experience as today we mark, thanks to the BBC, public transport “chat day.” Today is the day we put our Englishness aside and speak to our fellow travellers. If you are fortunate enough to be travelling West Coast Virgin trains, you will notice that every coach C today is designated a “chat carriage.” Not to be outdone, bus company Arriva is placing “conversation starter” cards on each of their buses throughout the network. Frightening. For all this we can thank Emily Kasriel, the BBC editor behind the project. The aim is “to encourage people who are up for it to get out of their comfort zone and emerge from their screens to interact with the adult sitting next to them”. “Many people are reluctant to talk to strangers, but perhaps someone is battling loneliness and an exchange could provide a meaningful moment that changes their day,” said Kasriel, the head of the BBC’s Crossing Divides season. I have to confess I am not a natural chatterer. On those occasions, not that often, when I am travelling by myself I tend to see this as an opportunity to catch up on my reading. Settling down for a two hour journey to Euston I would be horrified if someone started a conversion. Although now I think about it, I had an enjoyable few words with a young Australian couple last year as we waited to pull out of Lime Street. However, only as far as Edge Hill: I had a book to read. However, the essential point is important. We need to engage with those around us. God did not design us to be solitary. “It’s not good for man to be alone” observes God to the newly created earthman (Genesis 2:18). It seems that feeling isolated and lonely, in contrast, is a stress factor which poses a health risk comparable to smoking and obesity. We each have a story to tell. Research from the BBC shows that commuters assumed that only about 40% of their fellow train passengers would be willing to talk to them. That’s a good reason to stay quiet but it seems every participant in the BBC experiment who actually tried to talk to a stranger found the person sitting next to them was happy to chat. t doesn’t help if you are travelling with someone else. That can be excluding for any extra passenger sitting at the same table on the London train or the third seat on EasyJet. In fact, flying home from Tenerife in January, Jacqui and I sat with a young Asian girl sitting on the aisle seat. Her friends were behind her. I don’t think we spoke very much, if at all. Then as we made our descent, Jacqui started chatting to her. And she opened her heart, telling Jacqui as a complete stranger how she longed to be married but was constrained by her profession. We committed ourselves to pray for her over the next week. The Bible doesn’t have many examples of people chatting to each other on public transport. The nearest I can think of is in the early days of the church, how Philip is invited by the Ethiopian eunuch into his chariot so that he can explain the meaning of a passage from the prophet Isaiah. But that strategic conversation made all the difference as the Gospel began its spread out of Jerusalem. Of course, some people have the knack of making conversation. The key is the ability to listen and to respond, allowing the other person to set the level. Most of us, at least to begin with, don’t want to share our innermost selves. Certainly we are not called to thrust Jesus into the dialogue – most of us are wary of religious maniacs. But we can share ourselves even at a superficial level, to show in some simple way, usually in passing, that we are Christians. That offers a prompt which may or may not be taken. Myself I will often say, as we did to our fellow traveller on EasyJet, that I will pray for them – and mean it. Above all, we need to avoid the cult of busyness. Here I speak to myself as I bridle at the check-out operator having a conversation with the customer before me, delaying my day by at least 20 seconds. But we need human interaction and in this era of loneliness we need to be proactive if only to comment on the weather. But we need more. I recall my experience of commuting during my three month sabbatical some years back, working in the library at Liverpool Cathedral, a solitary existence. What struck me most was how much I missed having any significant conversations. And yet this is the experience for most commuters. As the apostle Paul advises: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:6) So stop reading this blog (it is finished, anyway), turn off your mobile and say hello to the nearest person. It could even make their day!