Having complained in my last post about the landscape in Birmingham (or lack thereof…), I need to redress the balance by telling you one of the best things about Birmingham – people talk to you. In contrast to my experiences in other cities, especially London where staring silently on the tube seems mandatory, in Birmingham you’re likely to get a friendly “awright bab?” from a passer by; especially when you are waiting at the bus stop.
Now on occasion I have been chatted up at the bus stop by people I might not really have chosen, but on my trip to the Malverns on Tuesday I had several friendly exchanges with local people I could have ignored. One smiley older lady at the bus stop made eye contact with me so I asked her if she was going anywhere nice. We chatted for a while about how she was off to visit family members on the other side of the city who can’t get about so easily. I wouldn’t have guessed she was 80 but she had a lovely attitude and was grateful for the bus pass which meant she could support her less mobile relations. Another girl on the train was glad of some reassurance that it was stopping at University station – she had a library book due back and I encouraged her to make a dash for it to avoid incurring the fine (50p an hour, short loan).
I know some people find it harder than others to make small talk with strangers, but I’m reminded of Elizabeth Bennett’s words to Darcy on the subject when he claims:
I certainly have not the talent which some people possess… of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation or appear interested in their concerns as I often see done. (Pride & Prejudice, chapter 31)
Elizabeth explains that although her piano playing is not as masterly as some, she considers that to be her own fault since she does not take the trouble of practising. I suppose my opinion is that the reward more than outweighs the effort, and I love to be reminded that strangers may just be friends we haven’t met yet.
As a child growing up in the 80s, concerns of ‘stranger danger’ were beginning to become part of the popular consciousness. While there is clearly wisdom in teaching children never to go anywhere with strangers unless their parents/carers say it’s ok, instilling a fear of every unknown person is unhealthy. Thankfully my parents and others who taught me about such risks included how it is a good idea to approach an unknown house with lights on if you fear you are being followed by another unknown person. On balance, the stranger in the house will be likely to help you call parents or the police and will bring safety rather than danger. Part of my task in my first big lecture on Monday is to deconstruct some of the ‘dominant discourses’ (that’s public/media opinion in non-University speak) around who abuses children. Delivering my powerpoint presentation to 130 students (many of them strangers to me) fills me with some trepidation… hopefully I will get better with practice…
Finally the link to my other job with refugees and people seeking sanctuary gives another reason for talking to and welcoming strangers. There are many rewards from getting to know people from different cultures and I have learnt songs in Yoruba, Shona, Twri, Farsi and Hausa from visitors at our Drop In and singing group. But I believe that when I make a cup of tea, pack up a bag of food, share a little cash or listen to the story of someone overlooked or ignored by society, I’m also doing it for Him (Matthew 25).