Like most of you, I spend a good amount of my working day traveling. This morning started out no different than any other… but instead of getting annoyed with the world and everyone in it, I decided to play a game.
My first ‘victim’ was a middle aged woman sitting opposite me on the train. Before boarding, she gave the ticket collector a very hard time about the lateness of the train. At first he ignored her, then realising she wasn’t going to go away, he simply gave the company line, apologised slightly, then looked at the next person in the queue. Quite ignorant. Some people in the queue tutted at the woman, others simply stared at her, annoyed at the thirty seconds of ‘inconvenience’ she had caused.
I spotted her entering my carriage and watched as she slumped down in the seat facing me. She looked tired, very tired. I watched as she gazed out of the window as the landscape whizzed past. I started to to wonder who she was, where she had come from and where she was going. What had made her look so tired? Why had she snapped at the ticket collector when late trains were a daily occurrence?
Her clothes were slightly dated, but clean and presentable, offering a suggestion that her morning dressing routine had become just that, a routine. There was evidence that care had been taken to select the appropriate outfit, but the outfit itself was starting to look worn. She wore a pair of low heeled leather shoes that showed signs of scuffing and previous repair. A sign that she preferred to choose quality footwear and probably had a reasonable income at one time.
She wore very little jewelry. No earrings or necklace. On her left hand was a wedding band. It was thin and tarnished and I had the impression that she would turn it round and round her finger when she was in deep thought or anxious about something. But right now she looked mostly expressionless, instead choosing to clasp her fingers together – so tight that her knuckles glowed white against the pale pink of her hands.
I wondered what was on her mind. Her eyes seemed to be looking beyond the immediate blur of green, grey and black that our window offered. She seemed fixed onto some distant thought. A place far away or moment in her history perhaps.
As the train pulled into the station, I watched as she gathered her belongings and hurried along to the door. It wasn’t until the train pulled away that I noticed that she had dropped a letter on the floor. I picked it up. It was a letter from a funeral parlor detailing the arrangements for her late husbands funeral that very afternoon.
The ticket collector and many passengers had simply judged her as an inconvenience that morning as we boarded the train, but here was a woman who was going through probably one of the saddest days of her life.
Nobody can truly claim to look at a person and know what they are thinking – but our bodies and expressions do give off a lot of clues. Our brains allow us to make snap judgments about people when we first see them. The resulting conclusions might be right, they might be wrong, but they can and do affect how we interact with the person from that moment on.
We cannot know what other people are really feeling and I was in no position to ask a complete stranger her business. But I do feel that going ahead, I will learn to evaluate my initial judgement about a person and try to have some empathy towards their feelings – because I was the ticket collector that day.