Wednesday, January 13, 2010

If Only I Could take a Chair-lift to Work

One of the things that I love most about skiing is riding the chair-lifts. At least on chair-lifts in Canada, it is acceptable, if not expected, to chat with the strangers beside you. The ascents are usually only 10-15 minutes in duration, so conversations typically cover the standard: Where are you from? How long are you here for? How are the conditions on this or that run? Are those powder skis you’ve got? Pretty fancy.

These brief exchanges are not intended to lead to lasting relationships; rather, they are simply friendly conversation. However, they are almost always pleasant and can even improve your day by providing you with tips on how to make the most out of your skiing experience.

Such is not the case on the London Underground, or “the Tube”, where passengers tend to mutually ignore each other. In December, 2009, The London Assembly’s Transport Committee’s report, Too Close For Comfort, found that some trains carry more than four people per square meter during peak morning hours. During rush hour, passengers are often physically pressed up against each other, yet usually abstain from acknowledging the other members of their intimate human sandwich; for on the tube, eye contact is one of the most deadly sins.

There are a few common techniques that people use to help them avoid human interaction on the Tube. The first, and most common, is reading. I always bring a book with me, but for those who arrive at the station ill-equipped, free newspapers like the Evening Standard or the Metro function as excellent shields from the wandering gazes of deviant passengers. It is also important to step into the tube carriage with some form of literature so that you don’t risk breaking another cardinal Tube sin: reading over someone else’s shoulder.

Another popular technique of social avoidance on the Tube is listening to iPods. In my opinion, this strategy provides greater invisibility than reading: not only can you avoid looking at people, you can avoid listening to them (well, the few who actually speak). Listening to music, audio books, podcasts, and other programs helps passengers zone out of their stressful physical environment and tune into the world of their digital media. iPhones give users an even greater sense of public absenteeism on the Tube. They enable passengers to write drafts of emails (there is minimal internet service underground), play games, listen to music. I find it ironic that users of iPhones avoid socializing on the Tube as this technology enables them to be incredibly socially connected above ground.

A more controversial method of anti-social behavior in the London Underground is eating. This is probably the least used strategy. The Tube hosts a high volume of passengers, and is, thus, not the cleanest place to eat a meal. However, it is an effective way of repelling other passengers: some people are so disgusted with even the idea of eating in such a germ-filled environment that they completely ignore you.

I am not sure why passengers try so hard to avoid human interaction on the Tube. As someone who enjoys talking to strangers and making new friends, I am always baffled by the social anxiety I feel when I enter a London Underground station. I think that part of the reason we are so anti-social on the Tube is simply being underground, which causes us to feel trapped and suffocated. In addition, once we step into a carriage, we lose complete control of the efficiency and duration of our journey. Problems such as delays, communication failures, and overcrowding are not up to us to solve. All we can do is accept that we are going to get there when we get there.

Regardless of the reasons why passengers snub each other on the Tube, it often makes for an unpleasant and uncomfortable experience. Instead of going to work keen and energized, I often feel panicked and stressed out. Although the London Underground is an amazing system of mass transport, I wish that it could be a little friendlier. I think that if the social experience of taking the Tube was more like riding a chair-lift, London would be an even more productive city: people would come to work feeling healthier and happier, and may even pick up a tip or two to improve their job performance!


Anonymous said...

Shannon what an accurate assessment. Coming from Banff to the big city of Sydney, I also have tried to make small-talk with the person sitting next to me on the bus/train/ferry. I quickly found out this isn't exactly acceptable. In my opinion its more uncomfortable to sit beside someone and not at least acknowledge their presence. It's very strange that people are able to isolate themselves with so many people around. I miss the chairlift and small town canada too!

Ron Hamilton said...

I love eating on the tube, if only to get the reaction of disgust from people around me. I treat myself to a large sampling of Nigerian stews from the Brixton market after work every friday (which is an adventure in itself) and then eat it on the tube. Last week I have a mixture of goat and chicken stew, and everyone was just hating me with their eyes on the tube.

Bryn said...

People are different. I personally find the lack of social contact with strangers to be very comforting. I'd be way more stressed out if people were trying to talk to me all the time.

Pat Mullen said...

Funny... Although a ride on London public transit is probably much colder than a chairlift, I actually liked the anonymity of the Tube. I remember when I was in Toronto for TIFF, this person on the streetcar kept trying to tell me her life style while I was trying to read. I kept smiling and nodding, and then politely trying to nose my way back into the book thinking "oh, shut up..."
...Maybe I'm just not as friendly as you are, lol.