I am often in agreement with Jean-Paul Sartre’s idea that hell is other people, particularly other people on a sweaty, height-of-summer bus, or in a bar queue, or “whispering” in cinemas. But this makes it all the more pleasing when I find commonality and shared enjoyment with strangers.
One of the best examples of this is when watching sporting events. I cannot tell you the number of high fives given and received with fellow Liverpool fans in random pubs – my best mates for 90 minutes, and without the lifelong lie of pretending to like their spouse. I have hugged people from every walk of life after a ball ricocheted off the crossbar and over the line in the final minute.
The bucolic version of this is the nod-and-smile that walkers exchange as they pass, wearing bucket hats and boots, fleeces with shorts: always an outfit for two seasons. We smile as if to say: “Look at this! Nature! Not social media!” It’s like sharing a secret, except it is hectares big and smells of pine and cowpats and not-work. I’m also what my friends call a “mingler”, by which I mean it is not uncommon for me to end up playing Scrabble with people from the next table over at the pub, exchanging niceties and numbers.
There is a beauty, too, in strangers coming together in collective annoyance. The mutual eye-roll on a delayed train or the group tut at jobsworth security guards. Conversely, there is the symbiotic ecstasy of a gig encore; the drunken, raucous laughter in the loos with people whose names you won’t remember in the morning.
Despite the stranger danger we were warned of as children, strangers can represent safety, too: the women who don’t know each other, but come together when a threatening situation unfolds; the men who step in, too; people, splashed on the front pages, who come to the aid of others in extreme danger or natural disasters.
It is said that a measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable. I think it can also be measured by how its strangers interact: how they intersect, rub along and share spaces, experiences and moods. From something as simple as a door held open, to the stranger who pulls you by the collar from an oncoming lorry, to the fellow booers of George Osborne at the Paralympics.
It might be going too far to say that heaven is other people, but I will never not love the interchanging of spirit, or the quasi-religious experiences that can be shared with someone you don’t know from Adam.