Speaking to strangers on the train: Learning about worlds outside our own

Last week on the way back from London. I got on the train and sat next to a man in agony.

He had a serious problem with his back and had two large cases to carry. Every time I asked him if I could help with the cases he refused saying that he could cope. However, he kept having to move the cases owing to the lack of luggage space on the train.

Intrigued by him; a man in his late 60s, I struck up a conversation about where he was going and where he had been. He said to me that he had been away from the city for a year and he was coming back for the first time, no weekend returns and no quick trips back.

I was amazed to find that he had become a live-in carer for someone hundreds of miles away who had Parkinson’s Disease. He uprooted and moved with a couple of cases to care full-time for someone who he had absolutely no links with.

He had injured his back lifting the guy up and down and caring selflessly for him for the year. He was on his way home to his family for the first time to celebrate Christmas.

I just looked on as he told me his story and thought just how selfless this was and how you just don’t know the kind of wonderful stories that people who you sit next to on the train might have.

I always speak to people on the train and some have become clients and others shocked me with their stories whilst others ignore me thinking that I am just a loony.

The best and most outrageous guy was a Scotsman that I bumped into during the Olympics in 2012 on the tube. I had seen him earlier in the day on my way into London at Euston, he had some kind of repetitive special need that made him twitch and shout at times and people moved away and ignored him.

I sat down next to him on the tube and he immediately struck up a conversation with me in a loud voice. He asked me where he needed to go to get to Blackfriars, he twitched and shouted but I looked on my phone tube map and showed him where to go. No one else spoke to him, most shied away and all ignored him.

We had such a laugh as he berated them all for their ignorance.

I asked him before I got off the train if he would like me to accompany him on to Blackfriars and the lady to his right said, “No that’s OK, I am going that way I will help him.” She said, “No one else apart from me and you are remotely bothered if he gets home safely.”

This shamed so many of the commuters on the tube and I looked back down the carriage as I left it and felt that we had helped someone who really needed it and felt sad that so many people did everything to ignore him.

I know that you need to be safe and also that you just don’t know how people will react but when someone is so blatantly harmless and just trying to get home, take your headphones out, look around yourself and show a bit of compassion.

Professor Chris Kemp is CEO of Mind over Matter Consultancy and works with world leaders in their fields running programmes for leaders and managers.

We deliver a range of interactive, highly- pressurised programmes for high performers in companies across the world, underpinned by applied leadership and management theory.

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