Susie Rushton: The unspeakable truth about commuting

Urban Notebook
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The Independent Online

Try speaking to a Londoner – one you don't know – in a public place, and you'll get one of two reactions. They'll either avert their gaze into the distance, ears tuned into another wavelength, and you'll wonder if you said anything at all. Or they'll give you a look. The one that means, "Hello, freako. You're suffering from an illness that's left you severely disinhibited. And I'm sorry about that. But please push off, mug someone else."

The Tube is the worst place to start a conversation. Everyone knows that. If someone talks to you on the Underground, it's probably a pick-up (although I never had much luck that way). Or, more likely, it's a strangulated war cry in the battle for personal space, something along the lines of, "Er, sorry very much, but there really is space for me too, if you wouldn't mind..." Cycling is the touchy-feely way to commute, but I'm told that chatting while you're stopped at traffic lights isn't done either. "Ooh, nice flanges..." No. Eyes front, head down.

For better or worse, and it's probably to the detriment of our general wellbeing, we don't talk to most of the seven million people around us. There's always someone who hasn't understood the unspoken rules. On Saturday morning at my local swimming baths I tiptoed up to the edge of the pool, completed a quick head-count of each lane, and made for the far side. A head emerged from the water just as I slipped in. "Good morning!" sang out a male voice, and a matching face smiled broadly. As if that weren't enough, he added, "And how are you?" I duckdived into the next lane.

We don't like talking to strangers even when they're trying to help. Yesterday morning, a friend was extolling Streetcar. It's an ingenious scheme in which the car-less London driver can rent a vehicle for just a couple of hours, at a minimum cost. The cars, all squeaky-clean VW Golfs, are parked around the city in various convenient locations, their tanks full of petrol. Members log on to the website, search for the nearest car, and book it; a special code lets you unlock it and start the engine, without a key. Cool, right? "And the best thing of all, is" he said, voice rising in triumph, "that you don't have to speak to anyone in the entire transaction. Isn't that brilliant?" Unspeakably.

Rubbish advice

One London freesheet, handed out at Tube stations, is running ads saying "Please don't leave this newspaper behind – it's littering". Yes it is. But it's also a public service. If there's no second-hand reading material left behind in Tube carriages, what'll we do to pass the time? Start talking to each other?

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