Are you comfortable with strangers?
If you follow me on twitter then you know that I have a Saturday morning ritual. I head into town (Early. Very early) and make straight for Costa, where I fill myself up with coffee and sit in peace. Not for long but it’s 20 minutes of no one asking me for a biscuit, wanting to know where their clean shirt is and without the never ending stream of “Mama! Mama!! Mama!!!”
I sit and drink my coffee, play with my phone and stare out of the window. It’s quiet at that time. The regulars are there, we nod and smile at each other, many of us are mothers, recognising that cry of ‘Freedom’ shining from our eyes.
I really look forward to that time. Sometimes the thought of that little bit of space is the thing that gets me through the ‘I want to scream’ moments in the week. The other Saturday though, something happened that made me think.
I’d grabbed one of the much coveted sofas next to the window and spread myself out accordingly. There’s plenty of room, the majority of the tables are empty so I don’t worry about hogging space.
“Excuse me. Please can I sit here?”
I look up. There, in front of me, smiling slightly is a young woman about my age. Smartly dressed and clearly not a fellow escapee mother.
“Um, yes, of course”
And so she sits. Plugs herself into her iPod and takes out her book. Sips her coffee, laughs softly at whatever she is reading and that’s it.
She clearly didn’t sit down with the intention of wanting to make strained small talk, try and get me to join a cult or to seek solace on a strangers shoulder. She just liked the look of the table I was already sitting at and saw no reason why she shouldn’t sit there too.
And there was no real reason why she shouldn’t sit there. It’s a free country, it’s not my table, it was obvious I wasn’t waiting for other people to join me, so why not? And why did I feel so uncomfortable? Why did I feel the need to gulp down the rest of my coffee after a few minutes, gather my things and leave?
It wasn’t that my moment of relative solitude was broken. I was simply uncomfortable that someone I didn’t know had asked to sit with me, when there were plenty of other tables free. As a nation we’re not terribly sociable with strangers are we? In waiting rooms we try and leave seats free between ourselves and others. On buses and trains, we all try and sit separately until lack of space forces us to sit, knee to knee, with people we don’t know.
Personal space is so, well, British, I guess. Unless there’s something to unite us (and let’s face it, that will usually be to complain about terrible service) we try and remain untouched by those around us that we do not know. Until, at least, enough time has passed for us to be able to recognise regular faces or something prompts us to make that leap into conversation.
Are you comfortable striking up conversation with strangers? Would you be happy for someone to sit with you, even if there were plenty of free tables? Or is it just me?