Often we can become so caught up in our own lives that we forget to pay attention to the people around us. Moreover, we have transitioned into a society where awkwardness predominates most situations and prevents us from connecting to those around us. It even hinders us from doing nice things for people, because we are unsure whether we would be acting within social norms. But maybe we shouldn’t worry so much about fitting into social norms especially when it comes to doing good for others.
A couple of weeks ago, as I was making my daily commute to university on the tube, I noticed that a woman sitting opposite me was crying silently, wiping her tears on the end of her sleeve. She was trying so hard to make it look inconspicuous that I genuinely wondered whether she was crying or if she was suffering from some sort of allergy causing increased tear secretion. Once I had mentally confirmed that she was crying, I started becoming concerned and was tempted to ask her if she was ok. On the one hand, it is highly unusual for two strangers to start talking in London and striking up a conversation may make the situation uncomfortable, but on the other hand, I really wanted to make sure she was ok and let her know that she is not alone in the problems she is dealing with. I took the next few minutes deliberating over what would be the most appropriate thing to do. I tried catching her eye contact but she started to close her eyes in an attempt to have a quick nap.
A few stops passed and she opened her eyes, so I took the opportunity to say, “Excuse me, are you ok?” She seemed startled by my question, and gave a flustered response – “Yes, sorry, yes, I’m fine, I’ve just had a bad day.” I continued to ask her whether she wanted some water or a tissue to which she said “no, thank you” as she already had some. I thought I’d give her some passing advice and said, with regards to her crying, “It’s better to let it all out than keep it bottled up.” She smiled at me in gratitude and for the remaining stops of her journey on the tube that morning, she kept on smiling to herself and had stopped crying. She thanked me shyly before she left the train.
What this situation made me realise was that sometimes, it’s enough to just let people know you care by asking them if they are ok. It’s a simple and very overlooked question because it’s become so integrated in our casual greeting, “Hey, morning, you ok?” to which the automatic response is “yeah I’m good thanks”. But asked in the right way, it can show the other person how much you really care. In this case, I feel that me asking the woman about how she is when I was nothing but a stranger to her, made a difference. I know that, were it reversed, I would have appreciated somebody else’s concern incredibly. It just gives you the hope that you are not alone and there is help to be offered. It also helps us humanise the busy commuters around us, who we subconsciously ignore in our morning hustle, and if everyone did the same, we would all be more connected as a population.
There have been a few times when I have ended up breaking down on the tube and on the bus, crying uncontrollably. Despite the people around me noticing, nobody asked me if I was ok. I don’t blame them because we often fear the shame of being awkward so much that we forget to do what is more important. When I was having a breakdown, a simple “are you ok?” may have made a lot of difference. Sometimes I forget that I am not alone, sometimes I feel as though there is no one to help me. But a simple reassurance from a fellow human being is enough to make a difference.
So let’s make that change. Overcome the awkwardness, and ask that question.