Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Small talk isn’t universal.
The first time I teared up on the London Tube, I was embarrassed. I’d just moved there from Chicago, where people pretty friendly, so I assumed that a kindly stranger would approach me and ask if I was okay. If said yes, I’d obviously be lying, because who sobs uncontrollably when they’re okay? If I said no, I’d have to explain why, and that meant I’d have to start at the very beginning. By the time I’d finished my story, this stranger and I might have built a lasting human connection and, ew, who needs that?
Thankfully, none of that happened. I cried in peace as fellow commuters looked on, unmoved. The anonymity was comforting.
Unlike me, Jonathan Dunne is not a misanthrope. The 42-year-old is originally from a small town in Colorado, but has been working in London for several years, according to The Telegraph. Recently, Dunne created little badges with the question,“Tube Chat?” written on them (similar to badges the city gives out to pregnant and disabled riders). Along with these, Dunne passed out fliers that spelled out exactly what the buttons were for: inviting conversations between riders.
But Londoners weren’t having it. On Twitter, reactions ranged from mock panic to plain mocking (of Dunne’s initiative as well as their own aversion to human interaction):
I'd rather wear a t-shirt with my twitter handle so they can tweet me. It's the only acceptable way to talk to strangers #tube_chat— Kerri (@Kerri_Prince) September 29, 2016
If I wanted to talk to strangers on my commute, I'd move back to Yorkshire #tube_chat— Dan Dalton (@wordsbydan) September 29, 2016
It's bad enough on overground trains, when random strangers want to talk while I'm on Twitter, chatting to random strangers. #TubeChat— Will Black (@WillBlackWriter) September 29, 2016
If you ever see me wearing a #tubechat badge, I want you to assume I've been compromised and hope a retrieval team is on its way for me.— Melinda Salisbury (@AHintofMystery) September 29, 2016
A lot of people also tweeted alternative versions of the badge, with messages they would really like to convey to fellow passengers:
What went wrong? Well, the thought behind Dunne’s initiative isn’t bad. A lot of good can come from a serendipitous conversation with a stranger: you can learn something new about the world or yourself. And it can certainly break through the shroud of loneliness that tends to envelop big cities like London and New York. “That notion of feeling acknowledged as a person is one of the core pieces to me,” Kio Stark, the author of When Strangers Meet, a book that promotes interactions with strangers, recently told CityLab. And it’s not just a romantic notion, either—science says that social contact during commute can boost your mood.
Still, there are certainly pitfalls to this push for friendliness. For one, the line between interaction and intrusion is a thin one. Stark recognizes that. In her book, she cautions readers not to cajole disinterested strangers; that would qualify as street harassment. But in a compelling rebuttal to Stark in New York Magazine, Alice Robb pushes back:
Part of the argument against street harassment centers not on the sexual nature of catcalling, but on the imposition: the assumption that a stranger is willing to be interrupted, to engage with another. Certain overtures that can qualify as street harassment — saying “hey,” or complimenting an item of clothing — are not so far off from those Stark recommends. So what distinguishes an instance of street harassment from an invitation to “street intimacy”? The tone of voice? The gender or presentation of the speaker? Which brings us to the elephant in the room: As a petite woman, Kio Stark stands a better chance at having her overtures well-received than, say, a six-foot-tall black man.
So, not everyone is well-served by initiating spontaneous conversation. Chattiness also doesn’t gel with the culture of every place. Stark and Dunne, for example, are from small towns where small talk is the norm. In fact, it’s very (although not exclusively) American. Writer Karan Mahajan, who like me, hails from New Delhi, recently wrote in the New Yorker about how he’s struggled with American small talk as an immigrant:
American life is based on a reassurance that we like one another but won’t violate one another’s privacies. This makes it a land of small talk. Two people greet each other happily, with friendliness, but might know each other for years before venturing basic questions about each other’s backgrounds. The opposite is true of Indians. At least three people I’ve sat next to on planes to and from India have asked me, within minutes, how much I earn as a writer (only to turn away in disappointment when I tell them). In the East, I’ve heard it said, there’s intimacy without friendship; in the West, there’s friendship without intimacy.
Of course, that’s not true across the board. There are Indians who’re love small talk, New Yorkers (like Stark) who want to give tourists direction, and probably, a handful of Londoners who actually like the concept of Tube Chat. But it seems that majority want to shut out the din of the city, rather than engage with it—at least for the duration of their commute.