Talking To Strangers

The scene: 10:30pm, Brixton Station, a couple of weekends ago, waiting for the 133 bus.

Me: *munching on a hot lamb pattie* (ooh, vaguely topical!) *Freezing*
Stranger: *makes fleeting eye contact, starts to wander over*
Me: *eyes darting wildly, looking for escape routes*
Stranger: “You look like you’re enjoying that.”
Me: Mm hmm. *does universal gesture of ‘can’t talk – eating’*
Stranger: “Waiting for the 133?”
Me: *nod*
Stranger: “Going to the Elephant?”
Me: *discovering I can’t chew forever, swallows* “Nope. The whole way.”
Stranger: You look West African – Ghana?
Me: *internal sigh* No.
Stranger: *with look of triumph* Then you must be Nigerian.
Me: *tired nod, unwilling to encourage further conversation*
Stranger: “You’re certainly not Ibo or Hausa. So Yoruba. ”
Me: *wishing he was wrong, wanting to claim Ijaw or Urhobo* Yup. You got me.
Stranger: *pleased smile* I knew it!

Internet strangers: different to strangers in the wild

After listening to him for about 30 seconds, it hit me. He was a ‘normal’, a friendly stranger. Just an older gentleman, wanting to strike up  a conversation with an unknown woman at the bus stop as we both waited on an unseasonably cold night. That’s all. Oh.

I often say – with pride – that I am a keen and excellent user of the ‘London face’. It’s similar, I imagine, to the ‘New York face’, the ‘Mexico City face’, the ‘Lagos face’ or the ‘Any Big City face’. My London face is a snarl at half-mast, a knitted brow, a pursed mouth, inside which a forked tongue is waiting to unleash hell on a foolish stranger who tries to interact. It is pre-emptive and forbidding. It is a signpost saying a succinct ‘Fuck off and don’t look back’. It is a mask, an invisibility cloak, a warning and a lesson (“my face is stuck this way – because some other idiot tried to talk to me. Approach at your own peril.”). It is a deterrent, a symptom and a cure.

In the end, we waited about 20 minutes. And me and this strange man spoke for almost every one of the seconds of those minutes. We covered my career – him: “A writer? Hmm. Why not law or medicine?”, the foolishness of British youths when the sun comes out – me: “they’re young and therefore they’re required to dress foolishly, even if that means freezing to death.”, money over happiness, how to go about seeking happiness, philosophy and of course, more weather chat.

It didn’t change my life or anything, and my hackles were still semi-raised even after 20 minutes of conversation. But it was nice. We got on the bus when it finally arrived and our chat ended when we hurried out our goodbyes: “Nice to meet you!” “Have a good night!” and waved. He stayed on the bottom deck and I climbed to the top. By the time I eased into my seat, my ‘London face’ was back on. It felt a little tight, that half-snarl, but we’re taking it one day at a time. Let’s not get too hasty.

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5 Comments

  1. Elejowewe
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    haha.
    Easy to tweet at a stranger though* – or have I missed the ‘internet face’?

    *or post on this blog.

  2. Posted April 11, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    I come from Bristol, the land of people knowing your name in the local convenience shops and everyone thanking the bus driver when they get off.

    When I first moved to London I thought that everyone was ignorant and mean. Now, after 11 years, I’m ashamed to say that I’ve also become the owner of one hell of a ‘London face’. #MeanMuggin

  3. Posted April 11, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    I use my London face about half the time in Brixton and the other 50% of the time I smile and make conversation with people like I used to back home. It’s nice to get the best of both worlds. Total anonymity and bitch face when I choose. Non London style social interaction when the big city feels unfriendly.

    I’d say it’s cos Brixton’s unique, but it’s really just because I’m so damn nosey all the time.

  4. Abby
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    My London face is a distant memory. How else would I meet cute boys in coffee shops (aka, my entire dating pool) if not from striking up conversations with complete strangers?

  5. Sade
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    I looked up from my reading on the tube the other to catch a lady with a ‘London face’ staring at me, I sent back a 100 watt smile, totally disarmed her, she sent one back too!! I do it (not all the time mind you) but especially to the staff who keep London and the tube moving to say – thank you!!

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