What is the rule about talking to strangers on The Tube?

The hustle and bustle of the London Underground
The hustle and bustle of the London Underground
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Columnist Darryl Morris writes about polite conversation on The Tube.

I am in London and I’m reading a newspaper on the tube.

Taron Edgerton as Elton John takes up a full page – his biceps protruding from his skin-tight outfit. I realise that I’ll never look like that. No amount of nearly joining the gym or only having one slice of cake instead of two will result in those arms. I’m destined for a life of feeble arms and a little bit of chub around the stomach. At least I’ve already got a girlfriend, I think to myself, and I turn to the showbiz page to read about more lives that are better than mine.

“Hello,” says an unfamiliar voice and I’m jolted from my newspaper. Startled and confused, I turn my head slowly to see the man in the next seat grinning at me with a murderous look in his eye.

“Hello,” he says again as I realise I haven’t responded.

“Oh… er… hello.” I hesitate.

“Where are you off to?” he chirps and I search my brain to see if I know this man. I must know him. That would explain it. Perhaps he remembers me from a mutual friend’s gathering? We may have shared a long chat in the kitchen at a party once. Or maybe we worked together?

“I’m Steven. What’s your name?” he grins and holds out his hand. He doesn’t know me. This man is initiating first contact. Here. On the tube. In London. Who is this maverick? Doesn’t he realise I was quite content to sit in silence and let newspapers point out all my inadequacies? That’s how this is done. Those are the rules. And what’s with the jauntiness? He can’t be… happy? In London?

“I’m sorry… it’s just,” I stutter as I reach for salvation in my pocket, “I’m Darryl,” I relent and use my spare hand to shake his. I pull out my headphones and they’re a tangled mess. I wrestle with them, yanking the wires in all directions. A bead of sweat drips from my forehead. This may be futile, but it’s the best hope I have.

“Where are you going tonight?” he asks.

“I’m just meeting a friend for a drink.” I respond sharply as I continue tussling with the wires.

“There’s a music gig in town tonight, you look like the sort of guy that would enjoy it. Are you going?”

“I actually just want to…” I begin, preparing to strike the conversation dead when, suddenly, it hits me.

What am I doing? This nice man has shown a genuine interest in my evening plans. He has selflessly dragged me from the negative grip of my newspaper and shown me some interest. He’s initiated a genuine human interaction to counter the destructive cycle of isolation and ruminating over my insufficient biceps – and I’m going to shut him down?

Worse still, he has shown me that London has eroded my northern warmth. Who have I become? What would my ancestors make of me? I spend a short time in London and so easily I am stripped of my cordiality. I haven’t even put up a fight.

It cannot be this way. We must take our charms to the capital and introduce them to our way of living. Their silence is powerful, sure, but we can’t be seduced into silence ourselves. We must talk. We must talk like the lovely, chatty people we are.

Yes, friend, let’s talk.

“Do you want to buy some drugs for the gig?” he asks and we stare at each other for a moment.

I free my headphones and slip them into my ear. Oh, London.