I used to think people-watching was best accomplished at malls. Wrong. Malls tend to be geographically centered, which means they pull a lot of the same kind of people. It's boring.

BART, on the other hand, travels around the Bay Area. It's used by people of all races, socioeconomic levels and stages of sanity. Sometimes these folks can be irritating, sometimes they're funny, but rarely are they boring -- even if they're just standing there, straight-faced, pretending they're the only ones on the train, while surrounded by a sea of humanity. It's the overwhelming norm on BART, at least among the people who are sober or not trying to make a buck by playing music in the aisle until you have to pay them to go away.

That is why I was stunned last week when a seemingly normal woman got on the train, walked straight to the seat next to me, looked me square in the eye, and said, "Hi. How are you?"

Uh ... what?

I managed to return a mumbled greeting. I wasn't looking my best, and I certainly didn't expect someone to come sit next to me when there were seats available next to more normal-looking people. I've recently grown out a new bushy beard; it has this strange gray-brown sectional color division going on. Plus my hair is a bit too long -- OK, it's scruffy -- and I generally wasn't looking terribly friendly. For that matter, nobody is friendly on BART. It's like a rule or something. While our grandmothers might call being cordial to strangers old-fashioned "courtesy," these days it's considered a mark of insanity. Modern wisdom says stay away, look down and mind your own business -- right?


Though we didn't exchange phone numbers or develop a deep, meaningful relationship, having a normal young woman say hello was nevertheless refreshing. A stranger, who didn't seem like a serial killer, greeting another stranger with a "Hi. How are you?" was almost stunning. And it shouldn't be.

We've become so conditioned to immediately suspect people's motives if they look us in the eye or -- gasp -- actually say hello, that when it does happen, we wonder what's wrong with them.

My 5-year-old -- who obviously doesn't know better, thank God -- still talks to strangers. This is a topic on which she needs some training at some point. But it's quite wonderful to see her not suspicious of people's motives, not assuming a stranger might want to do her harm and generally believing that everyone is nice enough to want to chat with her. Even among 5-year-olds, she's particularly friendly.

It's inescapable. We watch TV news that's nothing but ugliness. We walk around in public places where people fear each other for no good reason other than they look a certain way.

I'm sometimes guilty of this, too. While waiting in line with my kids to see Santa last weekend, I was a bit apprehensive about a guy standing next to me who had what I assumed were gang-style tattoos on his head. We ended up having a couple laughs and a bit of decent conversation.

It makes me think that perhaps if more of us suspended our cynicism once in a while and said hello to a stranger, it would do more good than anyone might believe.

At least it would lighten up things on a far-too serious BART train.

Contact Tony Hicks at thicks@bayareanewsgroup.com, Facebook.com/BayAreaNewsGroup.TonyHicks or Twitter.com/insertfoot.