When strangers engage us in conversation, few of us know how to adequately respond. Do we skip the awkwardness and assume that we know them? Do we mimic their enthusiasm and begin a friendly dialogue? Or do we reach for our ever-handy mobile phone or iPod, and ignore the alien’s ambitious advances?
It’s a tricky scenario to negotiate. Even more difficult, however, is when the stranger decides to ‘speak’ to you in sign language…
As a regular commuter I’ve met my fair share of public transport ‘randoms’. Last week, a typical Ringwood dole bludger was fascinated by my cricket whites. To break the ice he decided to attempt a conversation about cricket. His most memorable contribution was “That Ricky Ponting. Reckon he’s gonna win this summer?” I resisted the temptation to chuckle at his ignorance and, in my best bogan voice, agreed with his curious contention. On another occasion, a young lady verbally attacked me upon hearing that I’d voted for the Greens. Rather than launching into a passionate argument I nodded politely and apologised for wasting my vote. I have since refused to mention politics in public.
The events that took place early this afternoon, however, were a tad more peculiar. It all began at Richmond, where my private microeconomics exercises were interrupted by a barrage of school children. Their outrageous volume reminded me of my own primary school memories, quelling my usual frustration. As the kids capitalised on the empty seats surrounding me, a well-dressed man in his twenties joined the frantic game of musical chairs. The seat he selected was adjacent to mine, save for the aisle between us. At first there was nothing extraordinary about the situation. I returned to my workbook and refocused my mind on a series of price discrimination questions.
As the train began moving, though, I became distracted by the suit-laden man. While I could only catch a glance of him through the corner of my eye, it quickly became evident that something rather unusual was taking place. Rather than sitting still, the man was waving his hands around in sorts of directions. He appeared to be staring blankly at the empty seat before him, and I thus assumed he was rehearsing for something. Perhaps he was learning sign language and needed to practice? Perhaps he was reciting an important speech in his mind and was preparing for it visually? Perhaps he was communicating to someone else in the train?
I lifted my head up and looked around, but nobody seemed to be giving this stranger their attention.
For a couple of stations I didn’t think much of the man. It was only when I began scanning through my textbook did the man re-orientate himself and begin motioning towards me. I shot a peek at the window reflection to confirm my suspicions. I was correct in my judgment. For reasons I could not imagine, this eccentric individual had decided to direct his silent communicating in my direction.
The schoolkids beside me found amusement in the situation. In particular, one of my neighbours, a cheeky boy with red hair, met eyes with the man and began smiling. Judging by the glass reflection, it looked as though the pair were communicating with one another, something that momentarily relieved me. Before I could engross myself back in my textbook, though, the boy had decided to change seats, leaving me alone with the man.
His wild behavior continued. He motioned his hands up and down, before pointing in a number of directions. For a moment or two, his actions corresponded with my music, causing me to elicit a brief fit of laughter. To disguise my insolence, I reached down for my bag to find something else to distract me. The man could not take a hint, though, and curiously decided to impersonate my actions.
To correspond with the book I had decided to retrieve, the man found himself a lecture pad and began to point at the page with his biro. Again, I perceived my environment to ensure that I was indeed the intended recipient of his actions. This time around I noticed a multitude of eyes facing me, each of them watching intently to see how I would respond. I felt burdened to respond in some way, but what could I do? In the fear that my neighbour had some sort a mental disability, I was determined to avoid eye contact. The last thing I wanted was for this man to consider me rude, however as it stood, I was under the impression that his fervent hand movements indicated some sort of frustration towards me.
In my mind I toyed with the idea of confronting him. Upon realising that it was too late to react, I breathed in deeply and decided to persist in my unobtrusive passivity. I counted down the stations remaining and prayed that there was some logical explanation behind this enigmatic situation.
As the train reached my intended destination, a sigh of relief beset me. With haste I gathered my books and scampered towards the door. Just before departing, though, I couldn’t resist shooting another glance at the man. As I should have expected, he responded by staring back at me. What surprised me, however, was this man’s new manner. Sitting upright in his chair, he no longer seemed agitated. He looked no different to the other adult commuters in the vicinity; in fact, he looked comparatively more educated and civilised than the passengers beside him. Overwhelmed with confusion I left the train and pondered to myself what on earth had just happened.
Perhaps I was the target of a Metro passenger behavior test? Perhaps I was being subject to a psychological examination? I imagined a hidden camera was on the verge of being revealed, however no such thing eventuated. I pondered whether or not I had done the right thing. Should I have talked to the man? Was I right to just ignore him? Who was he, and what was he trying to achieve?
So many questions, so many possible answers. Let’s just hope I get a Ringwood bogan next time around.