“I forced myself to chat with strangers on the subway – it was harder than I thought”


I’ve done a lot of stupid things in the name of journalism, so it probably wouldn’t be too tiring to have casual conversations with strangers on the subway.

Inspired by John Bishop’s Say Hello campaign to combat loneliness, I took to the London Underground for an afternoon to see what would happen if I put my phone down and just asked people about their day.

To be clear, I’m from the far north and was only in the capital for a few days for work. For me, tube riding is more of an exciting novelty than boring everyday life.

Although I expected some shyness and resistance, I naively imagined that an equal number of people would be interested in chatting or even opening up a bit.

It turns out we humans are just not used to having a stranger engage us in conversation and suddenly emerge as a talking, thinking person and not just another body crammed into a train car. I was shocked how many people actually jumped.

Some people actually flinched when I spoke up


Julia Banim)

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I started in Canary Wharf when I boarded the sparkling new Elizabeth Line. Given the general excitement about this new commute-cutting line, I figured this would be a natural way to chat for a bit.

As I selected my first potential new friend, a suave looking man in his early 40s, I expressed my amazement at the gleaming condition of the car and told him I just couldn’t believe “how nice it is compared to older trains”.

He offered a nervous laugh in response, but luckily seemed more surprised than annoyed. At that point I hadn’t built up enough hard-won confidence to continue, so I awkwardly snuck away in Whitechapel.

Within minutes I was aboard another tube, seeking my next target with an intensity that made me feel a little like Joe Goldberg You. After noticing a sign discouraging excessive staring, I immediately toned things down.

My next choice was a friendly looking man in his 60s in a smart suit. Again I expressed my surprise at how comfortable the new trains were and he very patiently told me yes it was a new train.

I tried to pick up a thread of conversation by telling him that I wasn’t a Londoner myself and was therefore not at all familiar with the various train routes. I received a friendly but ultimately disinterested smile in response. It was time to pause train chat unless I met Francis Bourgeois.

Turning an exchange of remarks into a full-fledged conversation proved difficult


Julia Banim)

I got off at Farringdon and drove in the opposite direction to Shenfield. This time I kept a lookout for oddities on my fellow travelers, hoping for a full blown wet suit or a pack of historical reenactors.

Although I spotted a man who looked strikingly like Colonel Sanders, I assumed this was unintentional, so I settled on a woman in her 30s with a bright yoga bag patterned with small dogs.

I pounced on it – figuratively – and asked her where she got her bag (Yogi Bags, in case you’re interested). I was sincere and think it showed when she looked genuinely pleased with the compliment.

We chatted for a few minutes about the importance of giving compliments when you mean them, and she even told me to have a nice day when she steps out.

The woman seemed pleased with the compliment I paid her


Julia Banim)

A couple in their late 20s settled in with her, and, buoyed by my previous “success,” I spurred a groan over the junk WiFi. This led to a little back and forth about being north in the big smoke, which was pleasant enough.

To change my approach, I switched to the Bakerloo line, wondering if I would find a more convivial vibe elsewhere. Unfortunately, the older train’s screeching was quite loud, making it difficult to speak in a way that felt natural and easy.

I spotted two American women my age, each with a large suitcase, looking as if they were about to go on an adventure. I thought they wouldn’t mind a bold opener.

“Are you off somewhere, girls?” I heard myself say out loud before my embarrassment trigger could catch up.

Her gaze was completely alarmed. One simply replied, “Oh,” while the other said they just came from the US. I told them I was over for that week too, but unfortunately they didn’t care.

I couldn’t dismount fast enough as the awkward silence continued. Hopefully I’ve given them at least a taste of British eccentricity.

I experienced a few red faces but wasn’t embarrassed for long


Julia Banim)

After circling the Bakerloo Line with a red face, I soon plucked up the courage to speak to a lovely lady in her 70s and ask her straight up how her day was going.

As a longtime Londoner, she understood how confusing the Tube could be for outsiders, but now that she’s retired, she wasn’t as concerned about getting to a place at a specific time.

Another lady, the proud owner of a very cute dog named Charlie, was also up for a quick chat, as was the mother of an adorable one-year-old boy, Alex.

A fun-loving Swedish family with a wonderful selection of backpacks was also happy to tell me about their museum visit plans.

Some people were more interested in chatting with others


Julia Banim)

Eventually I returned to the office, surprised at how difficult it feels to present yourself so publicly, to break a silence previously broken by the sound of the tracks or announcements.

June marks the Eden Project Communities community month in the UK with Bishop’s say hello Project as a prominent feature.

In a YouTube video Bishop explained where his inspiration came from: “To me it feels like the days of saying hello to strangers on the street, on a bus or in the park are sadly pretty much a thing of the past .

“Most of us have spent too much time alone in the last two years and now is the time to get out; To socialize with people, young and old, near or far. The ‘Say Hello’ campaign is all about making it a little bit easier, just, well… ‘Say Hello’.”

It’s often difficult to admit when you’re feeling lonely, even though it’s such a common feeling. Many of us know all too well how a kind word or a well-intentioned compliment can brighten an otherwise difficult day, and yet we so often hold back from offering our own for fear of being vulnerable.

I doubt this is an exercise I would do on a daily basis and would never force a conversation on anyone who wanted to keep to themselves.

However, I have reflected on how inexperienced we are in opening ourselves to such improvised chinwags that can make us feel part of a community even in the largest cities.

I also expect to continue to strike up a conversation or two when it feels natural, the momentary embarrassment be damned, and I’ll reach out if I see anyone who seems in need of a friendship to commute to.

However, I will take care to keep train chat to a minimum.

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