I remember when buses and trains were noisy places. In the days before everyone had phones and devices to remove them from the present. I remember having conversations with whoever was sat near me and no-one thought it was odd or perceived ulterior motives, where there were none. I was always very shy and it was never me that started these conversations, but I was always happy to respond and to be surrounded by the chatter. Now when I get on the bus to work everyone is quiet. Some people will be reading books, some will be listening to headphones, lots will be on their phones, a few will be gazing out of the window or glassy eyed. One or two may actually be talking, but in hushed tones, as if the sound of conversation on a bus full of commuters is somehow unnatural and something to be kept to a minimum. This used to bother me, but now I find I have conformed. I get on the bus and within the first minute my phone is in my hand and I am ignoring what is around me. On the occasions when I do have a conversation on the bus I always have the uneasy feeling I am addressing an audience and not just the “conversee”.
This week though, I had a rather wonderful interaction with a fellow passenger. As usual I was ignoring my commute companions when I had to move to allow the person next to me to get off at their stop. As I sat back down I caught the eye of another passenger who smiled and said “I was just admiring your hair.” “Oh…thanks” I mumbled, surprised by the unexpected complement, and a little embarrassed. Then after a slight pause “thank you” and I smiled and turned away, back to my phone.
But I wasn’t really looking at my phone then. That one sentence had lifted me. Just a few small words, but when I got off the bus I was walking a little taller, and holding my head a little higher. I had had a “Bad Hair” morning that day, and it had taken several attempts (and a couple of deep breaths) to achieve the roll I tend to wear at the front of my hair, and I had left the house feeling less prepared to face the world than usual.
The truth is I have long struggled with my self image. During my teens I was something of a chameleon, dressing differently according to which group of friends I would be seeing, doing my hair and make up differently. I remember shopping and buying things not because I liked them, but because friend A would like them, or because they were the kind of thing Friend B would notice and comment on. I spent too long trying to be different things to different people and lost sight of myself. In my 20s and beyond I was always after the latest fashion, wearing clothes that were “in” regardless of whether they actually suited me or not. It was only as my 40th birthday approached that I started asking myself who I really was and wondering how I had somehow lost “Me”. I decided that from then on I was going to be myself, whoever that turned out to be. I would start by wearing what I liked regardless. If I liked something that was all that mattered. I did a lot of self assessment that year and concluded that I was far too worried about what others’ opinion of me was. I had a bit of an epiphany when I realised 2 things. 1) that what I think people think of me, and what they actually think of me are not necessarily the same thing. In fact they can be very different. And 2) the people whose opinions really mattered just wanted me to be me, and to be happy being me.
From that time I have dressed in vintage style clothing – particularly 40s and 50s styles. I feel great wearing these clothes, and dressing differently can certainly be a conversation starter. Plenty of people ask me where I have bought something, or how I manage to get my hair “in those rolls”, or get my eyeliner so symmetrical (it rarely actually is!). At one time I may have stammered out a reply, with an embarrassed smile and turned away, but now I will usually try and make more of a conversation. I appreciate the time and effort taken by the person who has commented, when they could have stayed silent. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t still have the occasional wobble, I was not feeling so confident that morning, but that comment from a stranger made a big difference to my day
What made it even better was when I looked at my Facebook feed that evening. I am a member of various vintage clothing groups, and this was a post in one of them.
How fabulous that with our words we have the power to build up someone we have never net before. Never underestimate the power of the words you say to a stranger. So pay the complement, give someone a smile, you never know you could just be a sunbeam in their otherwise grey day.