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Our response to #Tube_chat says something important about Londoners

Emma Haslett
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Commuter Chaos As RMT Workers Bring London Underground To A Standstill
They may be packed into carriages, but they'll never, ever chat (Source: Getty)

It appalled Londoners and baffled outsiders, it broke the internet and sent the capital’s commuters into paroxysms of fear - yes, yesterday, someone tried, very gently, to persuade Tube users to speak to one another. The effort did not go down well.

Reports of badges bearing the legend “Tube chat?” being handed out at Old Street station began to emerge yesterday morning. The badges came pinned to a flyer encouraging commuters to “Have a chat with your fellow travellers…. You’ll benefit from a daily chat”.

Needless to say, the majority of commuters were not impressed. “This is an affront to everything I love about London,” complained one. “Try me. Go on, I dare you,” threatened another.

Although everyone from Sadiq Khan to Transport for London was blamed, it turned out to be the work of a slightly bewildered American man called Jonathan Dunne. Dunne has lived in the capital for two decades and became tired of the “barriers” people put up - and wanted to give commuters a chance to “opt in” to conversations.

Londoners’ reactions might have been rather strong - particularly for poor Dunne, who said handing out the badges had been a “miserable” experience - but it suggests something deeper about the capital’s commuters.

That golden silence has remained the same since the Tube was first introduced in 1863. And although commuters’ attention has turned from books and broadsheets to smartphones and high-quality freesheets (ahem), so far nothing - apart from the odd pack of Spanish schoolchildren - has encroached on the bubble we create for ourselves on the Tube.

To preserve that quiet, London’s commuters have even gone as far as to fend off underground mobile signal and all the impositions that would cause, preferring to cherish the period at the beginning and the end of the day when we either steel ourselves for what is coming or digest what has happened has not changed.

However well-meaning #Tube_chat was, it was never going to work. Along with a stiff upper lip and an appreciation of irony, our ability to avoid eye contact when packed into sardine can-like spaces is one of Londoners’ defining attributes. In other words: no chatting, please. We’re British.

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