How to Know What Strangers Really Think About You

Sometimes, being “lost in translation” can be fun.

Erik P.M. Vermeulen, PhD
5 min readSep 16, 2022


Photo courtesy of author

Two overcooked salarymen entered the Yamanote Line train, talking loudly. It was 10 PM and it appeared obvious they had been having a good time.

I was with a friend who worked and lived in Japan, and I was going back to my hotel after the conference dinner in Shinagawa.

I had a fun time. It was great to see so many colleagues again. And they gave me an interesting-looking gift. I think it was a sculpture of a giraffe. But I wasn’t entirely sure.

“We thought you would like it.”

“It seemed very you.”

“Thank you. It’s great. I know just the place for it. In my living room.”

We must have looked funny. Sitting on the train. Two foreigners with a pinkish purple giraffe. We already stood out, but my new pet somehow made it worse.

It felt strange to have him sat on my lap facing other people. But it felt even sillier to have him facing me. And hanging him upside down made me seem indifferent to animals. I love animals.

So, I gave him his own seat. Sat between my friend and me.

Three of us riding nowhere. On our way home.

“They are talking about us,” my friend whispered referring to the two salarymen. “And how silly we look. They think we look like fools.”

“We do look like fools,” I muttered. “At least, we certainly look different.”

Are They Talking About Me?

What are they saying?

Paranoid, fragile creatures that we are, we often worry what others are saying about us. And as much as we like to feign indifference, we do care about the judgments of others. Even when those “others” are complete strangers who we will never encounter again.

Such questions often pop up in our minds when we are in a foreign country. Where we are unfamiliar with the language. And where everyone might be talking about us, but we would never know.

Are they talking about me? What are they saying?



Erik P.M. Vermeulen, PhD

Prof (law) exploring the collision of life, work, and technology, with a current project in the works - a sci-fi novel.