Friday, 24 June 2011

On Common Ground

For no obvious reason, today I found myself remembering my ride on the Transpennine Express back to Manchester Airport when I was on my way home from seeing my relatives in Yorkshire just before Easter.
The train had been packed (it almost always is), and since I did not feel like squeezing myself and my luggage in with either a family with small children or with a grumpy (and not very clean) looking man, I chose to sit on my little red suitcase (the very same one you can see here, a trusted travel companion) next to one of the doors so that I could look at the landscape outside, changing from the industrial to the suburban to the very rural and back.

As is quite common on trains in the UK, someone with a trolley came round to offer snacks and drinks. This time, it was an elderly man, probably in his late 50s or early 60s, rather on the large side; obviously having finished his round on the train, he parked his trolley by the door opposite of where I was sitting, and sent a friendly smile in my direction.

Almost everyone instinctively smiles back when being smiled at, unless one is either extremely bad-tempered or extremely cautious, and I am no exception.

The man saw that as an invitation for a little chat, and a short but pleasant conversation ensued.
Obviously, I sat where I sat because of the train being so full, and Mr. Trolley commented on that. I assured him that I didn't mind and was actually quite comfy there on my suitcase.
Earlier, I had eaten a sandwich (which I had not bought from him but at the station in Leeds, where I had had about 15 minutes between the train from Ripon and that to Manchester), and he offered to take the empty carton from me and put it into the rubbish bag he had attached to his trolley, something which I found rather kind of him, and said so.
He then moved to the question of my travelling, nodding in the direction of my suitcase - was I going on holiday?
In fact, no, I was going home. Where is "home", he asked now, to which I told him that I lived in Germany.
Mr. Trolley informed me that his brother used to live in Germany for years, being stationed there with some military division or other (don't ask me about such things - I have no idea of regiments and weaponry and ranks), and that him and the wife had been over a few times to see the brother, and liked it.

Basically, that was the gist of our conversation; at the next stop, the trolley man got off, and I was carried further on to Manchester Airport.

While I was thinking today about this totally unspectacular little incident, it struck me how so often, if only we let them, others are trying to find common ground with us. Person A states to be from a certain country, and immediately Person B has some kind or at least polite comment to make regarding said country. Or Person A is walking a particularly handsome dog, and by admiring the dog, Person B establishes contact with Person A - however briefly.

This habit of trying to find something friendly to say is, I suppose, universal; I imagine that even in cultures where strangers hardly speak to each other (especially not when they are of opposite sex) similar exchanges take place.
Not being an anthropologist or versed in social science and psychology, I take this the only way I can: as an effort of being nice, of making one's own day just a tad brighter by talking to someone, and not necessarily with a vested interest, but simply out of goodness and kindness.

Maybe I am naive in believing that there is at least some good in a great many people; maybe it is just a lucky coincidence that, from the odd unpleasant incident aside, so far in my life I have not had that many bad experiences with people.
No matter what is true (and I certainly do not claim to know), I just think life is easier if we, every now and then, are on common ground with someone else for a little while.


  1. Hello!
    Yes, I think so too. Its that connection we like to make. ITs really interesting. I've said things to people on buses and planes that I wouldn't normally say because I know I won't be seeing them again. Fascinating world!

  2. Thank you, Julie! Yes, I wonder how much of such conversations is due to the "comforting" thought that, in all likelihood, we never meet the other person again.

  3. I think you are correct. A smile, a word, even stepping aside to let someone through can create a momentary point of contact which can lead to a memorable moment. Occasionally those moments lead to an acquaintanceship or even a friendship. I have found that as I've got older it has become easier and more natural to create that point of contact. It makes life so much happier.

  4. I find it always surprising how helpful and kind people are to each other when there is something unforeseen happening. For example the other day when I travelled to the airport and there were no trains going but some busses instead. Of course those were very crowded and my suitcase only found a place a bit far from me. I tried to hold it to avoid that it falls on the ground and had to stretch out my arm very far and it was not comfortable when a lady just offered to hold it for me. Earlier on that trip by trying to hold my suitcase I broke one of my fingernails very bad and a man just offered me his little scissors from his Swiss Army knife.

  5. GB, like yourself, I find that easier the older I get; maybe because I feel now a lot more comfortable with myself than when I was a complex-ridden bundle of insecurities during puberty and in my early 20s.

    Anonymous, yes, I have observed that, too; when some years ago the trains weren't running for hours, people instantly established who was going were, and took taxis together, lent each other their mobile phones to let those at home know they were going to be late, and so on.
    Sorry to hear about the fingernail!

  6. There is a very slim book from Canada which is called "All We Know of Heaven". I very much enjoyed reading it and it speaks very much of what you have written here although it was set in a monastery!
    I very much enjoy your thoughtful posts. Oftentimes, they leave me pondering so much that I can't think what to say to you as a comment!

  7. Dear Kay, how kind of you to say that about my posts! I appreciate every comment made here - but it is good to know that sometimes lack of comment does not mean lack of interest.

  8. I think you have noticed something very true. Not everyone will do such things, from fear or grumpiness, but most do. More people have impulses to a kind of empathy, and actually act on them,then we always recognize.

  9. Hello Kristi, yes, both fear and grumpiness can stop one from reaching that bit of common ground I am talking about in my post, and of course I have been in situations where I thought it wiser to keep to myself and not even get eye-contact with others. Whether that was justified or not, I shall never know, but so far, I have mostly had friendly encounters.

  10. That's interesting. Don't you think it also applies to blogging. You read a post that makes you think a little bit, and you add something yourself - just to be friendly!

  11. Exactly as you did just now, Jenny :-)
    Yes, you're right - thank you!

  12. Thank you, Anonymous, glad you like it!

  13. I like how Jenny compared your experience to that of blogging. It really is all the same, isn't it.
    Loved this post. It makes all our days brighter when people are friendly and kind. I so believe those words in Jewel's song, 'only kindness matters.'

  14. Re-reading this almost 6 years to the day after I first read it I still think that it is an uplifting post.