Beware the friendly stranger

My mother and I often have a debate about whether it is polite to say “hello” to people who are almost strangers. I — and most normal people — think it is stark raving bonkers. My mother thinks that I only think this because I was brought up in the east. I think that’s just racist.

My mother assures me that in Glasgow people — complete strangers — say hello to each other all the time. This is clearly untrue. For a start, if everybody said hello to everybody the greeting would become meaningless and you might as well not say hello at all. And it’s more efficient to say nothing, which is why strangers don’t say hello to each other.

Even so, if you accept that Glaswegians are more likely to say hello to strangers, then it’s only because the greeting is swiftly followed by, “Any spare change pal?”, or a knife in the chest. If it isn’t, they are probably a raging drunkard who has mistaken you for their long-lost uncle.

I’m not just going on one of my anti-Glasgow rants here you know. Every sane person thinks that it’s not normal to say hello to strangers. Matt T for instance.

Today, for what is the first time in the thousands of walks to the tube station I have made, a complete stranger said ‘Good morning’ to me as I we were passing in the street. Furthermore he wasn’t – or at least didn’t appear to be – in any way mentally ill.

My mother would say that he was just being friendly. But it is not friendly to go up to a stranger and say hello. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine anything that is more impolite. We all know from past experience that a stranger starting a conversation means one of two things. The first is that you are about to have a conversation with somebody who is utterly bonkers. The second is that you are about to have the most boring conversation you have ever had in your entire life.

There was one particular incident that made the purchase of an MP3 player my top priority. It was no longer a luxury item that would merely keep me entertained on those long journeys. It had become a necessity.

I was coming home from university, and my face was buried in a book. I was trying to revise, you see. Most people would take this as a kind of ‘do not disturb’ notice. Not the absolute dullard who sat next to me. The ticket inspector came along to check our tickets. So far it’s all very mundane. Once the conductor had moved out of earshot this person looked up at me and showed me the ticket that had been printed out for him.

He pointed at the price, as if I was meant to know what a single from South Gyle to Kirkcaldy costs. Several seconds later he finally opened his mouth. “Look, I’ve been overcharged.”
“Oh really?”, I replied.
“Yeah, look. He’s done me out of twenty pence.”

What are you supposed to say to somebody like this? My awful train neighbour was the sort of person who would make a fuss over twenty pence. But people like this are common. I’ve learned over these past few months working in a shop that people will do anything to save even the smallest amount of money — even though they certainly could have done something much more productive with their time. But it was clear that our poor overcharged soul had expected more of a reaction from me.

About ten minutes later, obviously still seething from the whole experience, he piped up again from absolutely nowhere. “That conductor is very crafty. I bet he’s got a Porsche. It all mounts up you know.” Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. Because you were overcharged twenty pence, the conductor must have a sports car. Shut up!

I would rather not have to deal with dodgy, boring old men who have nothing better to do than complain to a student about losing twenty pence. So I bought an MP3 player because it is a very visible ‘do not disturb’ sign. It is useful even if you’re not listening to music. People say that it is anti social. But it’s the only way I can stop myself from actually hating people.


  1. The headphone trick doesn’t always work. I was on the train home from work one evening, watching a movie on my laptop with earphones clearly plugged into my ears. The old lady sitting next to me nudged me. Yes she actually nudged me to get my attention, making me remove an earplug and miss part of the movie so she could ask “Is that a movie??” I felt like saying no it’s a pineapple but I just nodded politely to which she replied “ooh well isn’t that clever”. I answered “Yes, it’s technology, now shut the fuck up so I can watch my movie” plugged my earphone back in. Sadly my answer was not out loud.

  2. The French, on the other hand, always greet strangers with a polite greeting. It’s the done thing and impolite not to. I guess that’s one reason why I like France so much.

  3. Actually, it happened to me once when I was in France. Another person, though, blew his cigarette smoke right into my face! I was about 10! Charming.

  4. I’m sorry you are starting your life with the feeling that greeting strangers with a “hello” is considered to be “bonkers”. In my profession I’ve met many people from Europe and they all appeared to be normal and very friendly. In the area of America I’m from it is not expected, but accepted when you greet an unknown person with “hello”. There’s no attachment to this greeting such as asking for a hand-out or a knife in the back; just simply a way of being friendly or acknowledging respect for your fellow man. For the most part all of the people I’ve offered a “hello” have returned the greeting ungrudgingly. When in a situation where I’m waitng either in line at the grocery store or in the waiting room at the doctor’s office , some of the ‘strangers’ I have returned a “hello” to have turned out to be friendly and usually have an interesting story to tell about their lives. And I have been genuinely interested! I hope as you mature you will discover the ‘friendlier’ side of your fellow man. I’m not suggesting you speak to everyone you pass; maybe, just the ones who you may have eye contact. Of course, if you are reading a book or watching a movie, you could return the rudeness and maybe miss out on meeting a very nice person. Good luck to you and try to work on the anti-social attitude.

  5. wow…..someone needs to get out of a cave. It’s HUMAN to greet people. What is wrong with saying hello? I don’t mind if a person says hello or starts talking to me in any way. We are social beings, again, its a natural thing and just because a person greets you does not make them insane…i think the only person who is insane might be you for overreacting about this.

    I say hello to strangers…how else am I supposed to meet future friends or even relationships? i’d be all alone if I shrugged people off. I would have never met some of the greatest people in my life if i had ignored them simply because they greeted me.

    Live a little…it doesn’t hurt. Life is way too short to be acting like this. It’s sad in my opinion.

    Good luck.

  6. In my experience, conversations usually only benefit the person who begins the conversation. The person at the receiving end of the conversation is just a punch bag to allow the instigator to let out some bile.

    A train when I am trying to revise is no place to socialise. I meet future friends through current friends, university and work.

  7. Doctorvee,
    Here is the way I see it, and…I really hope it’s O.K. for me to post MY comments here in this little box labeled “Your Comment”, because I believe that is exactly what “Brenda” was entitled to by leaving her comment in #7. After all, you did make the choice to post this in a place where people can comment and leave their opinion about what you have to say. I am actually doing a cultural anthropological study on saying hello to strangers right now, and basically I think YOU are rude and ignorant and perhaps a bit paranoid. Brenda wasn’t being rude at all, just constructive and I agree completely!! If you don’t want people to be friendly to you on the train while you are “revising”, then post a sign on your forehead saying “do not disturb”. Saying hello is just a friendly way of acknowledging other people. They aren’t going to become enraged and pull a knife on you. Seriously! I have NEVER met anyone with that same feeling toward a friendly act! GET OVER YOURSELF and start being more open to other people!