Tube Talk: Are You Up for a Chat?

Any American who has traveled to London will tell you that the culture shock is real. Why, you ask? We speak the same language, eat pretty much the same food, and put our pants on one leg at a time, too. But, unlike the chatty, friendly American stereotype, Brits come off as more aloof, independent, and reserved, especially on the underground during commutes.

Jonathan Dunne, a Colorado native, moved to the UK 20 years ago with his Kansas-born wife. For those who don’t know, people from this part of the US tend to be outgoing and welcoming, giving the south its “southern hospitality” reputation. After commuting 35 minutes a day on the tube and witnessing the antisocial and distant culture, he decided to start “Tube Chat”, an initiative to get Brits talking with each other and involved in something.

Designed in the classic TfL style, Dunne spent two and a half hours trying to hand out 500 pins that commuters would pin to themselves to let others know they were willing to strike up a conversation with (possibly) a complete stranger. This is similar to how expectant mums wear “Baby on Board” pins to tell able-bodied people to give up their seats for them. Except, while the latter is a respected and endorsed campaign by the TfL, Dunne didn’t have the same luck.

Something that wouldn’t have earned coverage in America garnered backlash in London. Protesters made pins in retaliation that said “Shut Up” and “Don’t even think about talking to me!”. For such an innocent and well-meaning campaign, the reactions are shocking. But, as Lucy Hume, Debrett’s editorial manager and etiquette advisor, points out, “In London, the tube is regarded as a sacred space.”

This is something that I have observed as well after spending my summer in London. Being from the affable Midwest, I was surprised at how well people kept to themselves, like it was a routine to avoid contact with other commuters. Not to say that I didn’t completely understand. After a long day at work and an hour long commute each way, I could understand the enjoyment the silence and the swaying of the tube along the tracks.

But maybe my American roots have me hardwired a certain way. As the Harvard Business Review notes, “America may be one of the only countries in the world where it’s common to strike up a personal conversation with a complete stranger.” Yes, it’s true that small talk, no matter how superficial it may seem, is an integral part of American culture. We’re taught from a young age that putting ourselves out there and meeting new people is essential not only for personal relationships, but also for business connections. It’s not that we try to pry into the lives of others, rather small talk is like an American way to say hello. And this is what Dunne is trying to say.

Dunne’s goal isn’t to force passengers to give up their relaxation period. Instead, he calls for people to look up from their phones or newspapers, always readily available on the Tube, and learn about someone new. In the city there are all kinds of people, and who knows, maybe some are more interesting than the ones being read about in that magazine. It’s harmless to be kind and involved in a conversation with someone new once in awhile. After all, we all start out as strangers on a Tube, don’t we?

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