Monday, July 29, 2002

Chatting up a stranger


If you are reading this on a bus or train and this is something you do every day, I am going to encourage you to be different and get a little innovative today.

Tuck this newspaper away for a while, introduce yourself to the person next to you and share something positive with that individual.

I am not sure if you can remember the last time a stranger did this to you or when you did this to a stranger. As much as this sounds like a shameless and unorthodox thing to do on the trains, I actually can.

At about 9am on July 16, I boarded a crowded train at Lakeside MRT station to go to Raffles Place MRT station. That ride became the highlight of my day.

Someone standing beside me actually introduced himself to me, shared his thoughts about current affairs in Singapore and told me to have a nice day. I ended up having four fruitful meetings that day plus lunch with my best friend — a very nice day indeed!

This incident would not have left an impression on me had it not been for a friend from Nottingham who visited me recently. During his trip, he shared his experience with people on the trains here. He said: ''Unlike people who use the trains in UK, people on the trains in Singapore tend to be uptight, do not smile and can be rather frightening.''

I wished he was with me on July 16; like me, he would have been pleasantly shocked.

Two views offered to me soon after made me understand why people tend to be reticent on the trains. The first view: ''Singapore is a cosmopolitan country filled with cynics and sceptics, so if you cannot beat them, just join them.''

The second view: ''More tax, higher public transport fares, increased redundancies, huge economic uncertainty, such great stress ... how to find happiness?''

Both these views, albeit arguably valid, reminded me of the wisdom of George Bernard Shaw, which also happens to be why I disagree with them: ''People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can't find them, they make them.''

Indeed, the right to choose how we feel and react to people around us lies with us. No one else can decide that for us.

Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the founding father of independent India, once said: ''I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.''

We are personally responsible for what we do and feel. Thus, we can choose to be influenced by others and be burdened. Alternatively, we can loosen up and be happy.

Throughout my 14 years of education in Singapore, I have been consistently reminded about how wrong it is to approach strangers or why we should be wary of strangers coming up to us. I must also admit that, in spite of my idealism, I still am at times not too friendly with people I don't know.

As such, I can understand why a change in attitude is going to require, in the words of a civil servant I met recently, ''a paradigm shift''.

But, hey, why not? And aren't we now in the business of Remaking Singapore?

Unless the intention here is to merely renovate Singapore, I submit that such a change will be good for the future of our country.

After all, Thailand is probably in a similar, if not worse, situation as Singapore, but the wonderful hospitality and positive outlook of its people — foreign talent and workers included — never fail to leave an impression on me.

Having a positive attitude has benefited me too. One can never predict who one will meet on the trains. This year alone, I have met at least two potential clients on the trains in UK.

It also gives me a great sense of satisfaction when I learn how I have helped people I meet on the trains.

Last December, I met Mr Dennis Brennan and his team of museum design consultants from Brennan & Whalley Designers on a train from Leicester to London. Like I normally do with people on the trains, I began talking to them.

They turned out to be the brains behind the restoration of some museums in Singapore.

The next week, my office received a fax from Mr Brennan addressed to me. It read: ''You are quite rare in a world where so many people promise to do things — but never get around to doing them!''

My bosses may not admit this but I am sure this letter enhanced their impressions of me. I hope I don't sound like I am boasting about my abilities here. If I do, please forgive me.

Although talking to strangers may be a risky thing to do, the courage required to do so has boosted my self-belief.

Strangers have become less strange. Therefore, if you are still reading this on the bus or train and this is something you do every day, it is still not too late to be different today.

Subscribing to the DITS philosophy — i.e. Do It The Same — can only hamper innovation. Do say hello or smile at the person next to you and it could very well make your day.

Dharmendra Yadav

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