On life

The stranger on the train phenomenon

Why is it, that sometimes it’s easier to tell a stranger something intimate or personal? Why are there so many people seeking the anonymity of the internet to share personal details, thoughts and emotions to people they’ve never met? Why do some people place so much trust in strangers?

About ten years ago I was dating a guy and we were sitting at a bar having drinks. It wasn’t a good night – we were fighting and at a certain point I got very emotional and left the table to use the restroom.

Once I was there I met a girl – she saw I was crying and tried to comfort me. She asked me what was wrong and I poured my heart out to her. I didn’t care that we’d never met and that it was weird and even inappropriate – and she didn’t seem to mind either. She scolded the guy I was with and gave me a hug. With some final supportive words she left and I never saw her again. I never forgot this encounter though. It was very special to me.

What was going on here?

I am not someone who easily talks to strangers in bars, or anywhere else for that matter, which made this conversation with a stranger extra special to me. How weird was it that I shared my misery with her in a public restroom and how kind was she to hug someone she didn’t know because she saw I was upset?

The stranger on the train

Turns out, it’s not that strange at all. Although it may be counter-intuitive, people are actually highly likely to share intimate details about their lives with people they’ve never met and will never see (again). This is called the “stranger on the train” phenomenon, which refers to two people meeting each other on a train, having a personal conversation and then leaving without ever seeing each other again. They reveal private information about themselves to another without consequences. It’s almost therapeutic.

This is obviously something that happens online a lot. Many conversations young people have online are with virtual strangers, out of a need to share personal stories about themselves without worrying about being judged or seeing this person the next day. And his may actually also be beneficial to the virtual stranger you’re talking to, who might be able to help by sharing their own experiences. This reciprocity helps build trust and can mean the beginning of an online friendship. So these conversations can be mutually rewarding.

My “stranger on the train” moment

In that moment when I was in that public restroom ten years ago, I needed a friend. I was upset and I ran into someone willing to give me a shoulder to cry on. We were strangers to each other, but in our anonymity and the safety of knowing we’d probably never see each other again, I told her why I was crying. I shared very personal details about myself to someone who didn’t even know my name. By the time I was feeling slightly better, she hugged me and left. Two strangers, a fleeting moment of comfort and a memory I will forever cherish.

Whether it’s online or offline: the stranger on the train phenomenon explains why we share personal, intimate information about ourselves with people we’ve never met. When we feel safe, anonymous and when we’re sure we’ll never meet this person again, chances are even higher that we’ll get personal. And as more and more people go online to share their story with strangers, the more I wonder whether we’re somehow losing intimacy and closeness with the ‘real people’ in our lives. Are our close friends just sick of hearing us complain or are they uninterested in our problems to begin with?

Strangers with benefits?

To me, that’s a very scary thought and unfortunately a realistic one. What if we crave these virtual ‘strangers on the train’ more and more, because our offline friendship are dwindling in closeness? I don’t like to think that this is true, but when I look around and see people interacting with each other, I can’t help but notice how superficial these interactions often are; and how a phone is almost always present. No wonder people turn to virtual strangers to talk about their problems. Although unfortunate, it’s not surprising; and it may indeed benefit us. You could argue that as long as these strangers offer the hug we crave and words of comfort that make us feel better – it doesn’t really matter that they’re strangers at all. As long as they make us feel better. And in a way, that’s a very beautiful thing.

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