Last week, in the wake of the hilarious and witty responses to some misguided online advice about talking to women wearing headphones (my suggestion? Do. Not. Do. This), I saw a resurgence of confusion about public transport etiquette.
Some commenters seemed shocked that anyone would want to cut themselves off from conversation with a random stranger. But I'd argue that headphones, or anything that gives the illusion of personal space, is vital to the well-being of any long-term London Underground commuter.
I can understand the bewilderment of people from outside London, or from those who drive to work or only catch the tube at weekends, at the silent packs of commuters, all studiously ignoring each other in their single-minded determination to get to work. We must seem unfriendly, isolated, almost drone-like. But the (literally) unspoken truth is that most of us don't want to be reminded we're on the tube at all, or we'd have to think about all the less-thansatisfactory elements of our commute. It's possible to fit over 100 people into a tube carriage during rush hour, but this is at the expense of any sort of personal space. We all try our hardest to keep physical contact to a minimum, but if the person who is plastered to your side due to a lack of space started telling you all about themselves, it would be almost obscenely intimate. I certainly wouldn't stand so close to a colleague, or even a good friend, to have a chat. Factor in the other truths about commuting we are underground, travelling at speed through a tiny tunnel barely larger than the train, it's hot and stuffy, and it's surprising that commuters aren't screaming into the void, never mind gossiping about the weather. We can't even see the weather down here!
So we develop our coping mechanisms; small ways to create personal space in our heads while giving our fellow travellers the personal space they need too.
Many of us taking the tube to work are heading towards an 8-hour day in a busy environment. On some days our commute may be the calm before the storm, a chance to mentally prepare ourselves to take on a challenge or meet a deadline. Sometimes I may try to meditate (although this usually turns into a snooze: a friend who sometimes catches the same train has photographic evidence), but my commute has also become a multimedia extravaganza, which is ironically geared toward eventual socialising rather than isolating myself. Catching up with the latest must-see television on my iPad means I can join in the conversation about it at work. While I don’t want to be subject to the ramblings of the person sitting next to me, I’m happy to listen to the thoughts and feelings of plenty of podcasters, enjoying their carefully scripted magazine shows or candid chats because I can choose how much, or little, I listen to. If I love a podcast, you can bet I'm recommending it to my friends so we can chat about it later, or I’ll check the show notes for further reading. I like to read books on my iPad, for convenience; I also like paper books because I can pass them on to someone else who might enjoy them. I might carry a book in my bag for several weeks, or get through it in a couple of days I know it's a great read if I have to leap out at my stop, book still in hand. I write emails to friends and family; I check Twitter; I’ll patiently wait for the next station to have wifi if I see a link to an interesting looking article. I've knitted when I've fallen behind on a project that was intended as a gift (with a circular needle so I don't poke my fellow commuters, I'm not a monster), and I've spruced up my makeup ready for an evening out, timing my beauty routine so I avoid the bumpy parts of the journey which would play havoc with my eyeliner. My commute takes two hours of my day, so I make no apologies about using that time selfishly, although I take care not to bother my fellow passengers.
Of course, I'm not completely oblivious to the people around me, and I do like seeing what they’re up to. We all do; the peripheral vision of most commuters is excellent, honed by many years of practice. I love seeing people studying; pulling out heavy textbooks full of annotations and highlighting and a complicated system of post-it notes. I marvel at other people’s beauty routines, balancing abilities and baby wrangling skills. And for all the irritating behaviour the average commuter endures (which usually involves someone taking up too much space), we do enjoy the occasional micro-interaction; giving up a seat to someone who needs it more than you, or the awkward switcheroo when two pals find seats either side of you when in midconversation. For the most part, commuters are attentive to one another; we just try to be as subtle as possible about it. Once I made actual eye contact with a man opposite me as we both pulled out our copies of 'A Clash of Kings' (the second book in George RR Martin's epic Game of Thrones series). My bookmark was about a third of the way through, his was almost at the end. We both grinned. "It's SO GOOD!" He whispered, fervently. We both went immediately back to reading.
Elly Platt is a Costume Maker who lives in London