Strangers are strange

Yesterday evening I stood outside King's Cross station, waiting for a bus and blocking out the sound of skateboarding teenagers from behind me. A man walked past, stopped next to me and began shouting about skateboarding being a good way to kill yourself. He repeated this observation a couple of times before asking me what my plans were for the night and telling me that if I wanted to commit suicide he could suggest a good way to do it. (Skateboarding, perhaps?).

Then he laughed loudly and walked off in no particular direction, leaving me stood looking awkward and self-conscious - which I assume is the default expression of all British people in this kind of situation. Either this is common enough to have happened to most of us, or it's just happened to me an alarmingly disproportionate number of times.

Being approached by strangers when you'd rather be left alone is an inevitable part of going about your business in public. And I'm not talking about the overly extroverted clipboard types, (although they are the worst) but the kind of encounter when people approach you and, flouting all social norms, make you feel instantly uncomfortable.

Most of us would be happy to help someone if they asked for directions. The problem occurs when someone's behaviour is discordant with society's unwritten rules of how to act in public.

Anyone behaving in a particularly loud, rude or nonsensical manner, whether the reasons are obvious (like the stench of beer) or not, makes most of us feel uncomfortable. I say this sweeping statement because I've seen many people react in exactly the same way as I did at the bus stop.

Most of the time I shrug it off as someone being drunk or on drugs, justifying my reaction to myself. But how do we know that mental health problems aren't to blame in some cases, and if they are, should we ever get involved? I have a degree of understanding (and experience) of mental health, yet it's possible I ignored and rolled my eyes at someone suffering with these issues in an attempt to avoid embarrassment.

Of course, these sorts of happenings can often be attributed to alcohol or drugs. And if you're anything like me, the noise and the glances it attracts compels you to pretend you're suddenly so fascinated by your shoes you can't look away from them.

Maybe this is what growing up feels like, though, because I feel guilty for completely ignoring skateboard man. I did once walk around Manchester train station with my entire skirt tucked into my knickers, and I lived through that. So perhaps next time I won't be so quick to turn my (fully clothed) back on someone just to avoid embarrassment.

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