Tube Etiquette

Social dilemmas on the underground.


The 9th January marked the 150th anniversary of the London Underground. To celebrate this achievement I decided to take a ride on the Northern Line (serendipitously, ‘celebrate’ seems to be synonymous with ‘research for that article that I promised to write for my house mate in return for not doing my washing up’).

It is 16:32 and I am beginning my journey at Chalk Farm. Actually, I’m not sure if it is 16:32 because I don’t have a watch and yesterday I accidentally put my new phone in the washing machine, so it is currently not telling me the time but lying in the kitchen in a bowl of rice. I’m still bitter.

Zipping along in a pretty noisy train in a dingy little tunnel with someone’s McDonalds double-cheeseburger wrapper decorating the floor (150 years of technology producing some pretty hi-tech stuff here), I’m contemplating asking the person next to me for the time to make the article I have to write flow a bit better.  Alas, I am gripped by a familiar yet still overwhelming apprehension.

Surrounded by strangers but feeling that I am socially forbidden to engage with any of them (unless I’m feeling a particularly heady sense of daring and bravado and actually give someone a bit of a stare until they notice me staring and then I just feel really bad for the rest of the journey like I shot a cat or something) is, I suspect, not that rare a feeling.

I mean, I don’t expect the majority of people to feel quite so socially crippled at the prospect of asking someone for the time, but it’s generally accepted that what you do not do when surrounded by probably nice and interesting people in what usually ranges from fairly close proximity to having your head in someone else’s armpit, is talk to them.

The thing is, as much as this inescapable fear grips me at the prospect of talking to a stranger on the tube, I want to talk to this stranger on the tube. And I’m pretty sure it’s the fact that I feel it’s not acceptable to talk to people on the Underground which is where the grip of fear comes from, that’s gripping a bit hard and cutting off my circulation a little bit.

Still trying to see if I could persuade myself to ask for the time, I scrutinized the person next to me through the corner of my eye and their reflection in the window opposite in order to see if their face gave any clues as to whether they would either:

a) Ignore me (resulting in an anxiety-riddled shadow-of-my-former-self self)

b) Say no (Unlikely but equally confidence shattering),

c) Give me the time so I wouldn’t have to write an article that would probably revolve around asking a man on the tube for the time.

Maybe this would be the start of a beautiful friendship. Perhaps he was feeling a little down and just really wanted someone to talk to. Suppose he’s the editor of a top daily newspaper and after I tell him that I’m writing a student article, he sees the glittering potential in my eyes and hires me on the spot.

Reasoning with myself that this is my opportunity to seize a brilliant new future, I give a final furtive glimpse at his reflection in the glass as we pull away from Brent Cross and I realise I’ve got on in the wrong direction.

The man looks at his watch, and, as if to reassure himself, pulls out his phone and looks at that too.

It’s a remarkably recognisable model. I glare at him a little before I get off at the next stop. Some people get all the washing-machine-related luck.