Strangers on a train: Why don’t we talk to our fellow Croydon commuters?

By - Monday 4th May, 2015

#Croydon #TechCity co-founder Jonny Rose extols the virtues of overcoming British reserve and connecting with fellow commuters

Every weekday morning, I take a train from Croydon to London Victoria care of Southern Rail. In the evening I do the same journey back again.

The journey lasts just over thirty minutes and in that space of time I will browse Twitter, send emails, read a book, listen to a podcast and/or fall asleep – sometimes all once. I spend over 300 hours a year on a train and I will do just about anything in that time – anything but speak to someone else!

British culture is curiously reserved

We Brits, it is generally agreed, are notoriously reserved. In foreign parts this tends to translate as “snooty”. But in fact we’re just quite shy, almost apologetic for our presence.

In Notes From a Small Island, Bill Bryson finds that many of our sentences begin “Sorry, but…”. Thus, in any given British city, only beggars, lunatics and tourists speak to other members of the public; in London, you’ll be lucky to make eye contact. If you want to get a Brit to open up, wait until you know us a little. Or talk about the weather.

Naturally, this reticence is exacerbated by an order of magnitude in the creaky confines of the 7:47 London Victoria service.

We’re missing out by not talking

Last year, two American academics – Professor Epley and fellow researcher Juliana Schroeder – conducted a total of nine experiments to see how Chicago commuters felt about talking to strangers.

In one experiment, the researchers actually asked the commuters to go through with the conversations. At random, some participants were assigned to start a conversation. Others were asked to sit silently, and a third group was told to go about their normal commute routine (which involved silence for some and speaking to a friend for others). The participants were given sealed surveys to complete and mail in after their commute.

The results? People had a more pleasant time when they talked to a stranger versus when they stayed silent. Incredibly, the findings held even when the researchers controlled for personality traits, like extraversion and introversion.

More mixed results, however, were found by the much less scientific experiment of one intrepid Science of Us writer, Melissa Dahl, who spent a week talking to random New Yorkers on the subway. That said, on the third day, the writer finds herself commenting on a fellow passenger’s printed trousers (“We smile! It’s pleasant”), leading her to conclude at the end of the week that rather than forcing these sorts of interactions it’s probably best to only speak when you have something genuinely interesting or nice to say.

On the whole, the research seems to suggest that people can improve their own momentary well-being – and that of others – by simply being more social with strangers, trying to create connections where one might otherwise choose isolation.

Dare to connect with your fellow commuter?

Of course, outside of contrived experiments for American papers, rarely do any of us actually seize the opportunity to act on this. Matthew Hutson, also of Science of Us, explains this phenomenon:

“The main culprit here is pluralistic ignorance: Everyone is willing to talk but thinks everyone else is unwilling. That means there could be a train full of people who want to strike up a conversation, but it remains silent nonetheless.”

Does our fear of reaching out stem from that natural insecurity of ‘Why would that person who’s going about their day want to talk with me?’ Or – like that stranger in the waiting room who tells you about their yeast infection – are we very afraid of feeling or making somebody else feel trapped?

The problem with the expectation that no one wants to talk is that it reinforces itself, preventing any action that would lead to disconfirming evidence.

Will Rogers once said that “a stranger is just someone who’s not yet a friend”. If that’s the case, I can’t help but think we would have an even larger circle of friends – if only we took the time to converse with a few of the 71,800 people who use East Croydon Station each day.

If any of you reading this see me on the train please do take the initiative to say something. I’d welcome the chat. Unless, of course, it’s the morning after a Croydon Tech City event… Then I really need to be left alone to catch up on my sleep!

The next Croydon Tech City event takes place on Thursday 21st May at 7:30pm at Matthews Yard, Croydon. All are welcome. Sign up here.

Jonny Rose

Jonny Rose

Jonny Rose is a committed Christian who has lived in the Croydon area for nearly twenty years. He is an active participant in his local community, serving at Grace Vineyard Church and organising Purley Breakfast Club, and was ranked "Croydon's 37th most powerful person" by the Croydon Advertiser (much to his amusement). He owns a lead generation company. He is the Head of Content at marketing technology company Idio, the founder of the Croydon Tech City movement, a LinkedIn coach, and creator of Croydon's first fashion label, Croydon Vs The World. Working on Instagram training and a Linkedin lead generation service. Views are his own, but it would be best for all concerned if you shared them. Please send your fanmail to: jonnyrose1 (at) gmail (dot) com

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  • Stephen Giles

    There are no strangers, just friends you don’t recognise!

  • Terry Coleman

    One of the reasons that I took the Telegraph as a broadsheet paper when travelling up to London on a daily basis – I did so for close on 30 years – was to avoid eye contact and in particular so, with the beggers, the lunatics and the tourists that seem to frequent the public transport system in London, and elsewhere for all I know.
    I’m quite happy to be called a Snooty.

    • Jonny Rose

      I’m going to stop referring to you as Lord Bensham and call you Lord Snooty instead! :)

  • Anne Giles

    I always talk. If I hear someone speaking Spanish, for example, I ask if they are from Spain, Argentina or any other Latin American country. If I see a woman wearing a nice outfit I will comment on it. I will comment on pretty little girls with dreadlocks and ask how long it takes to get their hair done. Or I try to make people laugh, like the man who asked if he could possibly sit next to me and I asked him what he would do if I said “No”. Then I told him it would be an honour to have him next to me. He had the most wonderful dreadlocks as well! Another time a woman was talking loudly on her mobile about the fact that “it was caught on CCTV, but they ain’t found no weapon yet”. I then stood up and announced to everyone on the train that if they caught the same train the next day they would get the next instalment!

  • Bernadette Fallon

    You need to put it into practice Jonny and report back on the results. If you want a bit of advance practice, head to Ireland where you won’t be able to escape random conversations with strangers for a second

  • Pass The Deutschy

    People talk to me and sometimes if I see a space in the conversation I will talk to them too some people get uncomfortable but most people love the fact that they’re talking to others. I’ve been responsible for a whole carriage sing-a-long to Gold from Earls Court to a conversation that lasted at least 12 stops down the Northern line with people getting on and off and they were still talking when I got off the train. I’ve also started laughing on a train and looked up and everyone was laughing with me, it’s great. Even just now I got talking to a lost French girl and I helped her home. My grandmother is the same! lol! Talks to anyone and people LOVE her and her stories and my dad too. It’s wonderful. I agree with Jim Morrison, people are strange when YOU’RE a stranger, when you don’t act like a stranger you don’t get treated like one. One of my dear friends started off as someone I just met on a bus. I agree Jonny, time to start reaching out with smiles and friendliness, there’s a whole world of friends out there we haven’t met yet! :-) xx

    • Jonny Rose

      “I’ve been responsible for a whole carriage sing-a-long to Gold from Earls Court ” – I’m a big fan of your work :)

      • Pass The Deutschy

        *bows* lol! :-) xx