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A Rider’s Guide to 5 Awkward Subway Encounters

How to ignore your fellow commuters without being a jerk.

Headphones are a good "do not disturb" sign. (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

Aboard the D.C. Metro one day, a friend who prefers to remain anonymous spotted a familiar face from her Alabama childhood: a high school friend’s father, comically wrestling an errant, large plant. All my friend could muster was awkward, flitting eye contact. She left the train without saying hi.

The next day, her friend called her on her ghosting behavior. “My dad saw you on the Metro yesterday,” he informed her.

It might seem like a sitcom skit, but as Millennials become a more urban, public transit-reliant demographic, we’re running into a new etiquette issue that car commutes cushion us from: the quandary of how to navigate run-ins with people we vaguely/kinda/sorta know but don’t really care to have a full conversation with.

There’s a lot to weigh in the seconds after spotting someone you know. Perhaps you’d been looking to the commute as a time to read, think, or just fake everyone out on your headphones. There’s the cost-benefit analysis of avoiding a person completely and coming across as too unnecessarily forward. And then there’s the type of engagement: Do you offer a handshake? A wave? A middle finger? Nothing?

“It really depends on two things,” Lizzie Post—great-great-granddaughter of etiquette diva Emily Post, co-host of the “Awesome Etiquette” podcast, and etiquette expert with the Emily Post Institute—says. “How much do you want to engage with this person? And how often will you be seeing them?”

Here are five common characters you’ll run across on a subway car, and tips for turning a potentially awkward situation into a smooth one.

1. The Familiar Face From Your Past

Do: Catch up with a quick hello, and maybe something more.

Like Plant Dad or that old high school classmate: You’re not bad terms, but you don’t really have much in common beyond some mutual experience from a long time ago. Post says the best thing to do in this situation is to gauge how much you value catching up.

But if the conversation seems to be veering into a long-winded trip down memory lane that you’d rather not take, you can say something like, “Great chatting with you!” and then turn back to your book. Post believes in the concept of a distraction device. “Always carry a phone, a book, a magazine, something,” she says. “It’s useful as a safety net.”

Don’t: Pretend you’re someone else—or worse, that you don’t remember who they are.

“Once you’ve locked eyes with them, completely avoiding them or lying to them is just wrong,” Post says. “People need to know that acknowledging someone else is a really important thing,” she adds. “When we don’t, that’s where feelings get hurt. We should always treat others like human beings.”

2. The College Acquaintance

Do: Remember it’s okay to say you’re busy.

Maybe you shared a dorm, or a few beers. But a commute is often your personal time, and there’s no need for chitchat if you’re want to read, or just to be left alone.

Take into account how soon you’ll interact again, Post says. “If you’re going to see this person around at the park or the bar or some party in the future, you can just say, ‘Hey, let’s catch up at (fill in the blank),’” she offers. Another option: “It’s been so lovely, but would you mind if I check some emails before I get to the office?”

Don’t: Be afraid you’ll come across as rude.

“People realize that commutes are for errands and are precious breaks,” Post says. “Don’t worry.” If anything, if a person monopolizes your time after you’ve indicated you can’t talk, they’re being rude.

This is a good sign that your fellow passenger doesn’t want to chat. (Daniel Dionne/Flickr)

3. That One Co-Worker

Do: Follow their lead.

“This is a tricky one!” Post says. After all, what do you do when you happen to be in the same subway car as the person you only talk about spreadsheets with?

Plus, this is another situation where avoidance will probably not work out, especially if you’re heading into the office together. So how do you find the sweet spot between being friendly without being overly eager?

“On the one hand, [it’s] a great opportunity to talk to your co-worker or boss about something other than work,” Post says “But on the other, [maybe] your boss just wanted to leave work behind at the office, sees you, and thinks ‘Oh no, I have to talk about work now.’”

Post suggests that you let the other person take the lead—especially if he or she happens to be your superior. Start with a nod of acknowledgement, then see what plays out. If they ask you about your weekend or work, go ahead. If not, go ahead and turn back to your business.

Don’t: Gossip.

Even if your boss is buddy-buddy with you, you don’t want to be seen as unprofessional and untrustworthy. While gossip has been shown to be beneficial in creating bonds with co-workers, it’s best to err on the side of caution and good judgment and keep any opinions to yourself—after all, gossiping reflects more on you than on the person you are whispering about.

4. The Social Leech

Do: Wave, then tactfully disengage.

You met this person at a party once and they he was too clingy, or loud, or annoying, or a combination of all of the above. You aren’t really interested in having a friendship with him—but here you are.

This is going to be a two-step process, Post coaches. First, make sure you wave or nod or somehow acknowledge the other person. As in all the previous situations, once you’ve made eye contact, ignoring is a jerk move.

The second step? Swiftly disengage. Say something like “It’s been nice to see you, but I’m trying to catch up with (fill in the blank with an errand)—do you mind?” Once the other person says their farewell/see ya later pleasantries, that’s it.

Don’t: Roll your eyes and/or say something along the lines of, “I don’t really like you.”

(Unlikely, but, you know—just in case you were considering it.)

5. The Ex-Significant Other/Person You Ghosted On/Date From Hell

Do: Be an adult.

There are a bunch of factors at play here: Was your connection a single awkward date or a serious relationship? Do you want to catch up, or would you rather disappear into the grimy plastic ads plastering the subway?

Whatever the case, one thing should be clear, Post advises: The subway is not a place to hash out past problems. So start off by gauging how the other person is handling spotting you: Are they storming off? Are they nodding at you hesitantly? Are they coming forward with a smile? Take your cue from this, Post says, much like the way you would handle the co-worker situation.

And don’t overthink.

“If you broke things off and it seems uncomfortable, just nod and look back at your phone or book,” Post suggests. “If they come over to talk to you, don’t ignore them. But if you would rather not, just say you’re busy or look back at your book or phone after you nod. “This shouldn’t be a time to mend fences.”

Post says there can good things about seeing ex-flames on the subway. “I’ve found that these interactions are often good for smoothing things over [emotionally] and providing closure,” she says “If done right, it can be a polite and nice way to walk away with less anxiety about a bad date or breakup.”

Don’t: Refuse to acknowledge the other person.

“This is the worst thing a person can do in this situation,” Post says, recounting situations when she’s heard people say they couldn’t believe someone they were romantically involved with had been looking straight at them and not even saying hi.

As for my friend with the dad run-in? It wasn’t the last time she saw him—a few months later, she saw Plant Dad again, this time a couple rows ahead of her on a flight (without a plant).

And this time, she waved hello.

About the Author

  • Tanya Basu
    Tanya Basu, a former editorial fellow with The Atlantic, is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn who writes about how we interact with each other.