Talking to Strangers: what I’ve learned as an NHS Volunteer Responder during the pandemic

telephone off the hook

The theme tune that the app alert plays on my phone is jaunty and can-do. It could be the opening credits for a film starring Tom Cruise. The message that comes up on my mobile is simple — that ‘Shirley’ (let’s say) in Solihull (let’s say) ‘is in isolation and would like a chat’.

My task is just as simple,

‘Hi Shirley! My name’s Elizabeth and I got a message to say that you’re on your own and would like a chat.’

What happens after that varies from call to call. There are rusty taps: ‘No… No, not really. I don’t need a chat. I’m not really a chatty person…’ And there are floodgates being opened: ‘you’re the first person I’ve spoken to all day…’ with a rush of minutiae and memories and the kind of musings you might share over the space of 24 hours with the person you live with — if you’re lucky enough to live with someone (or someone you enjoy talking to).

But even with the rusty taps, when I then ask how things are today, I often hear the same thing as with the floodgates calls. ‘You’re the first person I’ve spoken to –’ and then something warms up: a muscle and a memory of what it is to be human and connected. Those calls can end up being the longest.

Binge-watching and banana bread are so First Lockdown. When I look back on Lockdown III, I know it is these calls which I will remember. In fact, I registered — through the Royal Voluntary Service — to be an NHS Volunteer Responder at the very beginning of the pandemic. As someone who has a full working week, isn’t a healthcare professional and doesn’t have a car, I wasn’t sure there was much I could contribute to the national effort when we went into lockdown in March. But conversation: I knew I could do that.

As could many others: the number of people offering their services during Lockdown no. 1 was in fact greater than the number of people who wanted to use those services. (In my experience of dinner parties, classrooms, board meetings and public debate, Britain was thus apparently in a highly unusual situation — of having more people declaring they were ready to listen than there were people who were ready to talk.)

Nevertheless, as January’s icy blues started to kick in, the ‘Mission Possible’ alert on my app sounded. And then again, and again. The alerts ask me to Check In and Chat with people in isolation who have flagged up that they’d just like to talk to someone. People can self-refer, or be referred by family members, neighbours, GPs or social services. There has been enormous take-up, and since the launch of the initiative in March 2020, NHS Volunteer Responders have answered more than 1.5 million requests for help.

There is so much I have learned from these calls. I’ve learned the difference — especially when talking to someone who’s having a hard time — in what you get when you ask, ‘how are you?’ compared with asking ‘how are you today?’

I’ve learned how to clean silver (this thanks to a man who used to have a shop in Portobello Market. The process involves bicarb of soda and aluminium foil). I’ve had (disputable) recommendations for the best episodes of Only Fools and Horses. I’ve learned about military service in Hong Kong, cruises to Jerez and how to cultivate lavatera.

I’ve learned huge respect for the invisible threads (sometimes the invisible ropes and hawsers) that create that ‘net’ we usually talk about only when people fall through it. I’ve spoken to people who owe their life to women’s refuges; who would have no ‘milk or bread or greens’ if it wasn’t for a neighbour; who, when their electricity was cut off, have had a gas heater brought round by the local rep of the union they used to belong to; who tell me how their church has helped them; or their grandchildren.

But what’s also become obvious is that these people have been, in their time — and in many cases still are — the spinners of that net. The people who have referred themselves to me and my fellow NHS volunteers as needing a chat were once our teachers, our soldiers, our nurses. This is a grandmother to 44 children. These are people who’ve been carers for mothers and husbands, on whose death they have found themselves alone. This is the 82-year-old woman who plants the community garden around her tower block (though she says slowly that she’s not sure anyone notices).

But of all that I’ve learned in my Responder conversations, the greatest thing has been about myself. I have been made aware of a precious part of my social interactions before this pandemic hit us — something that I was missing out on, for all my weekly Zoom yoga sessions, Instagram video chat, Teams meetings, Facebook rooms, scheduled walks, online parties and breakout rooms. Because none of these are a replacement for a part of normal human life that I’d never appreciated before: talking to strangers.

I hardly see strangers anymore, what with online shopping and restricted travel. When I do, we keep our distance and we wear our masks. We recognise and minimise the threat we pose to one another: this is not an atmosphere conducive to chat. And I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed the surge of comfort that comes from hearing someone else’s story and recognising in it something of your own; or the thrill of being taken out of that comfort zone by a bus stop conversation with someone quite different from you; the affirmation that ‘I am seen’ when someone in a shop smiles at you; the sense of being useful as you help lift a buggy up some steps and you have momentary worth to someone you might never see again — and whose flash of appreciation is thus unconditional. In the same way that a flirtation can make someone feel more alive, an exchange — even of the briefest platitudes — with a stranger can remind you that the world has possibilities.

And the strangers I’ve been connected to as an NHS Volunteer Responder are not just Shirley and the others. I also feel connected to my fellow Responders. The app offers a map which pins other Responders by postcode. I know that I am not alone — that there is someone one street up from me, and someone else along from the Co-op, and many others, who get the same alert trilling on their mobiles, and who are joining up the world. But more importantly, I know there are others who have my back — as well as Shirley’s. I can tap ‘pass to another volunteer’ if my alert sounds when I’m busy. And when someone in Eastbourne tells me she needs not only a chat but someone to go out and her get her shopping, then although it’s too far for me to offer any practical support myself, I can refer her on and I’m assured that another volunteer will be round to deliver her groceries the next day. It’s the kind of service you can normally get only if you subscribe to Prime.

Lockdown has held a mirror up to so many of the quirks and habits that make us who we are — as individuals and as a society. It’s taught us to notice the things we will appreciate when distancing measures are eased. It may have taken me longer to realise than it took Shirley and the others who’ve been on the end of my phoneline, but I will never again take for granted the pleasure I get from a passing conversation with someone I don’t know, and may never see again. If you sit next to me on a bus after lockdown, be prepared for a chat. It will begin, ‘how are you today?’

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Elizabeth is the author of five travel books. She runs training on storytelling for people making positive change in the world and regularly gives talks.