Talking to Strangers

I was struck by an article in the Guardian written by Catherine Carr about the pleasure she derives from talking to strangers, which forms the basis of her podcast ‘Where are you going?’ (disclaimer, I’ve never listened to it or, indeed, come across it before today; perhaps I should). Conversations with strangers, she opines,

are perhaps a cross between the confessional ….. and the last few ticks of the clock in the therapy room. Interviewees are always anonymous and – after we chat – we go our separate ways. Even though the conversation can become intimate very quickly, it is also only a brief moment shared, which then sort of closes up behind us.”

I can absolutely relate to this. I can remember some quite extraordinary conversations with people I have confidence I will never meet again. There was a usefully therapeutic conversation I had with a journalist in Paris. She and I had both been attending the L’Oreal For Women in Science awards (I as a member of the judging jury, she in her professional role of interviewing one of the prize-winners), but the ceremony was over and we ended up in the hotel bar, having sat next to each other on the official bus that had brought us back from UNESCO HQ where the ceremony had taken place. I have no memory of what we specifically discussed, possibly aided by some lubrication by alcohol, but I absolutely remember the pleasure of the conversation and the feeling of finding someone on the same wavelength with whom I could be open. I do remember worrying the next day that I had opened up to a journalist, a journalist who could make hay with whatever personal angst I had downloaded, but as far as I know she never did. (By this point, I neither remember her name nor the newspaper she represented).

That conversation had felt safe in a way talking to a colleague from my department, or indeed anywhere in my own professional sphere, probably could not have done. It was an accidental encounter with someone I found I clicked instantly with, but none the worse for it’s unplanned nature. Sadly, such meetings are rare, and far too often a chance conversation never gets beyond the easy exchange of facts. Or, as Carr put it, “Not the drinks party kind with all that, “Did you come on the B359 or via Porchester?””.

However, you never know what may transpire from a stray encounter. I am of the generation that travelled as a teenager and student quite often on my own and on trains. Back then there were no airpods and headphones into which one could sink and cut out the rest of mankind with loud music or, indeed, a podcast. It was not uncommon for casual conversations to be struck up with strangers to pass the tedium of the journey. It still happens a bit, as I spot on trains, but to a much lesser extent and I, for one, almost certainly will be working on my laptop to keep up with the dreaded email mountain. I don’t think I ever looked particularly encouraging (my sister seemed to manage far more of these conversations than I ever did; I was quite shy at 18), but one particular conversation sticks in my mind. I was reading Vera Brittain’s moving memoir  Testament of Youth, and the guy across from me asked me how far I’d got through it. He then helpfully told me that page xx (I forget the page number) would absolutely have me in tears. And he was probably right.

But perhaps the most important conversation I fell into was on a Greyhound Bus between Ithaca (I was living in the city; it’s where Cornell University is situated, where I was a postdoc in the Materials Science and Engineering Department) and New York City (where my husband then lived, and whom I was visiting for the weekend). This was at something of a turning point in my career, although I couldn’t know that at the time. I was in the second year of my second postdoc at Cornell, and an opening had arisen for a faculty position in any of the Engineering departments at Cornell, if a suitable woman could be found. These were the days of affirmative action in the USA, and this was the condition. My problem was that, the first two years I’d spent at Cornell had been an unmitigated disaster from an academic point of view. Essentially no papers, not even joint ones, and a poor relationship with the professor who’d employed me and who was still in the same department in which I continued to work. How could I make a case that I was worthy of consideration – as my current employer, my great mentor Ed Kramer, believed – when I had these two years of nothingness behind me and which would undoubtedly be used to question my abilities and potential?

It turned out that the woman I was sitting next to on the bus taught at Ithaca College, the other, but non-Ivy League university in the town. Somehow, I opened up about my quandary. Again, I don’t remember any details from our conversation, but over the approximately five hours of the bus journey, she encouraged me to be upfront. She felt I should write a clear statement stating my position. Based on her own experience of what she thought would be acceptable, she provided me with a framework to make my previous failure seem more explicable, even if not exactly justified, and to make a case for why I was worth taking a punt on to the faculty. I got off that bus feeling far more excited and positive than I had got on it. Pure chance, but I put her advice into action.

Ah, you might say, but you didn’t get that position and ended up back in England. That is only partially true. I applied for the job and, over an extended period, the faculty made their decision about who to appoint. Initially I wasn’t offered the position but, when their first choice (working in an area far from mine, which may have been relevant) turned them down they turned to me, by that time on a short-term fellowship in Cambridge. Ultimately, for reasons not least associated with my family all being in the UK, but also because of the opening up of the Royal Society’s University Research Fellowship scheme the summer before I would have left the country, I turned the Cornell position down. Having five years of guaranteed funding under the URF scheme meant the incentive to return to the USA decreased. So, in Cambridge I have been ever since.

I’m quite sure that random conversation with a woman – whose name I may never have known and whom I certainly never saw again – made a difference in both giving me confidence and a stronger application for the faculty position to set against those first two miserable years at Cornell. Talking to strangers, of course in safe situations only, can be strangely beneficial and perhaps therapeutic too.

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