Quiet car, photo courtesy The Infrastructurist

Everyone knows what poor transit etiquette is– talking too loudly, eating when you’re not supposed to, plopping a bag on another seat when there are standees, looking the other way when an elderly or disabled rider comes aboard a crowded bus, and the list goes on and on.  But defining “good” etiquette begins to get into the murky realm of subjectivity.  One recurring theme that I see pop up constantly in planning literature and pro-transit documents is the idea that transit fosters community by bringing people together into a common space.

I realize there can be a number of interpretations for “community” but in context it’s generally agreed that it entails strangers interacting with one another, usually in a good way.  What this means, of course, is that some etiquette rules might be bent, namely the unwritten keep-to-your-own-private-space mannerisms that are conventional to our social behavior.  For the transit-riding populace, this can launch to both extremes– some people hate being talked to when on the bus, while others are perfectly content when conversation is struck up with fellow passengers.

To generalize that to a broader scale, there are some cultures that consider it extraordinarily rude to converse with a stranger casually (particularly in excess), whereas in other cultures, being friendly and talkative to other transit riders is a trait tolerated and even admired.  Thanks to our identity as the melting pot of the world, the cultural pluralism we find in America means that no matter where you go, you’ll find a nice balance of both.

Cultural attitudes regarding a sophisticated and subjective matter such as this are tied to much larger structural strata and tend to be extremely resistant to change.  And because of our pervading individualism, not one person is the same, which makes it rather difficult to issue a one-size-fits-all prescription for “good” transit, especially when talking about transit-fostered community.  Some transit agencies have had the creativity of designating “quiet cars” on commuter rail lines for their more introverted passengers.  But when considering a packed bus or train during rush hour, that strategy isn’t as plausible.

So, the question is this– is conversing with strangers aboard transit acceptable?  How far do you go before you draw the line?  And how do we approach the social paradigm of transit, knowing that we all behave differently, from one individual to the next?

34 Replies to “Defining Etiquette in a Transit “Community””

  1. Metro’s ‘Code of Conduct’ spells out the legal definition of acceptable behavior.
    From Metro’s website:
    “Metro’s Code of Conduct can be summed up with the following common-sense guidelines:
    Pay the right fare
    Respect other passengers’ privacy
    Do not cause safety problems
    Use headphones
    No eating, smoking or littering
    No alcoholic beverages
    Do not harass driver or other riders
    Do not lie down on the seats
    Respect transit property
    Use Metro services and facilities for transportation purposes only
    Anyone in violation of the actions below may be asked to leave the Metro vehicle or facility, and risk suspension of their privileges to use Metro transit or enter transit property.”
    Of course we all know it is rarely enforced to the limit of being barred from a bus or facility, and mostly enforced by the driver to his or her level of tolerance on that particular day. Some passengers are bold enough to point out unacceptable behavior, but most try to stay ‘out of it’.
    So where do you draw the line between civil chat and being rude, about which topics, and to whom?
    If you follow the code you’ll respect their privacy (BORING!).
    IMHO there is no right answer, just common sense. Lot’s of idle chit-chat starts with just a polite comment and a smile, and goes from there. Some buses have the same riders everyday, and even celebrate birthdays of fellow workers, although I don’t imagine that will ever happen on a four car trainset.

  2. I recently took a bus from Burien to downtown at night.

    There was a young woman flitting from seat to seat. She didn’t much engage anyone in conversation. In fact, she didn’t talk nearly at all. She quietly sang songs in a beautiful voice, and drew portraits of people, mostly the elderly, on her sketch pad.

    She made everybody, even the crankiest, drunkest, and most deranged, smile.

    It restored my faith in humanity, and made me want to ride the bus more often, as I watched her disembark and skip, literally skip, across 6th Avenue and into midnight Seattle.

    1. Apparently I’m the crankiest of all, because I would just march right off that bus if she didn’t shut up and stop annoying everyone. I guess I’m Mr. Buzzkill.

  3. I was just thinking last night about how much I wish ST would make one of the cars on the Northline a quiet car, and one at the opposite end for cellphone junkies. Since this train isn’t as crowded as the Southline ones are, I don’t see a problem with the crowding as mentioned above.

    Plus, they need to redo the bike racks on-board. The set-up they have now is starting to cause chaos at times. I think they’re is a simpler way to store bikes on the train, plus add more capy. for them as well.

  4. As one of *those* people (that attracts bus talkers), I notice that 95% of the bus talkers are people with…issues. It’s hard to make hard and fast rules, but if I were to, mine would be “I am never going to go out with a stranger that tries to pick me up on the bus so just don’t.” Or one that tries to feel me up, for that matter.

  5. polite and courtious is the way but with everyone having the “right”.Who are you to judge me and to inforce guess what when you get to court you did not do that right because of his/her “right” man is it worth it? this is why the good samarition is so rare

  6. I would say social cues are important, but they are unfortunately ignored by a minority of talkers. If I’m just sitting there looking down the aisle, maybe I’d chat if you have something interesting to say. But if I’m grading papers, I probably don’t want to discuss the Seahawks.

  7. It is acceptable. Fortunately, many people can tell if someone feels like conversing or not. Sort of like on an airplane. I have had many great conversations with seat-mates. I have also had many flights where we said nothing.

  8. If you have headphones in you want to be left alone. If you don’t have headphones you either want to talk or are too poor to buy them. If it’s the latter I have some old broken ones you can borrow. Just stick them in your ears and bob your head around a little and nobody will even know you don’t have an electronic device.

    However, if you want to start conversation just go to Ross or TJ-Maxx and buy the largest canvas painting of a foreign city you can carry. Then ride as many buses as your transfer will allow carrying said painting. You’ll have a ton of people wanting to strike up conversations with you. Paris or Rome seems to work best.

    1. Yes, because the only possible reason to not be wearing headphones is poverty or a desire to chat.

      I suppose the old standby of reading (or, I suppose, pretending to read) is too, too passe.

      From most of the commentary I have heard and read concerning quiet cars on commuter trains in other cities, cell phone conversations seemed to be the biggest issue (especially those people who have the phone glued to their head), not random strangers hitting one up, nor commuter buddies chatting. But I imagine that is a issue with some who want quiet cars as well.

      1. I don’t wear headphones (though I sometimes wish I did), I don’t like talking on the bus (even when it doesn’t involve me unless everyone’s doing it), and I actually dread people wearing headphones because I have sensitive hearing and it seems like most of the time whatever they’re listening to seeps out loud enough for me to hear and knock me out of my comfort zone.

    2. Headphones can be nice, but they do take up space and for short trips, it’s not always worth the bother of carrying them.

  9. Starting up conversations with random strangers is an “at your own risk” activity. For every 10 people you make uncomfortable, there will likely be one person who will make you very uncomfortable.

  10. “So, the question is this– is conversing with strangers aboard transit acceptable?” No. Leave people alone. Unless it’s a very quick question, like asking the time, etc. However, in some group situations I believe it’s more acceptable to talk to strangers, like a Seahawks game, for example. But I think in our region, social mores are such that talking to strangers in a bus or train is frowned upon. To me, it’s a red flag. It’s probably a sign of mental illness, being socially maladjusted, or a lonely person who is desperate for human contact.

    1. Wrong Sam, our natural tendencies as human being is to flock together. Some of us, maybe a lot nowadays with cell phones and twitter have lost the ability to know when it’s OK to strike up a conversation, and when to shut up. I think body language has something to do with it, but don’t quote me on that.

      1. They’re not mutually exclusive. Our natural tendency is to flock together, but an individualistic culture can override that to some extent, especially if it doesn’t even recognize that “natural tendency”.

  11. I think people just need to get better at reading the various cues that people give off as to their receptiveness to conversation. If your first volley of words is met with a quick glance and a polite nod then its time to shut up. If its met with more than a few words then you can keep talking. Anytime someone is reading or has headphones on it probably means they want to be left alone.

    Offers of for are rarely welcomed.

    1. That should read “Offers of (insert sex act) for (insert drug of choice) are rarely welcomed.”

      Forget brackets are for html.

  12. Not only acceptable, but desirable. Public transportation is one of the few situations where you can sit down with a nearly random group of people and just talk to them. This inter-cultural interaction is highly valuable for a society. I actually think it’s a big problem that so many people go from their house bubble to their car bubble to their work bubble and back. We’d all understand each other more if we just sat down and talked sometime.

    Personally, I rarely start conversations on the bus. But I’m always happy to take part in one. If I’m listening to my iPod I usually pause and take my headphones out while a conversation is happening around me.

    1. “Not only acceptable, but desirable.” I have travelled the world many times over, and your belief/statement is simply not true. Sweden, Japan, Germany, Russia, China, Norway, South Korea …. People on public transit around the world keep to themselves and don’t bother other riders with unwanted chit-chat.

      1. I have as well, and it generally depends on the culture and the length of the trip. Actually, some of the best conversations I’ve had with locals were on trains. One of the best of these was in a country you’ve mentioned – China. I had long conversations with several families on a long-distance train there, and many small conversations on subways.

      2. My admittedly limited personal experience is that chatting on transit is highly variable and differs by region and as Sherwin notes even by train car (reminds me of the “bar car” story on This American Life). Commuters, not much talking. Long-distance train or late-night bus, expect conversation. Also even in Seattle, there are plenty people from other more talkative places such as the South; wear a Razorbacks shirt or something and you’ll quickly attract Arkansans.

        Also, I’ve found that having a young child or two with you apparently makes you fair game, usually just small talk but some people really like to give extensive “advice.”

      3. The “Razorbacks” comment is interesting. Last winter I wore an Illinois hoodie most days, and lots of fellow Illinoisans talked to me on normally quiet commute-hour buses. I also had someone yell, “Fuck Illinois!” at me in the U District.

        People start conversations with me about computing if I’m reading a book about that, or about music if I’m writing music. I don’t mind talking. Often if someone starts up the conversation they have something more interesting to say than my answers to them.

      4. One other thing that starts conversations is common misery. The first snow day last year I was stuck at Lynnwood Transit Center for hours with a pretty large group of people. I ended up talking to quite a few people I saw on the bus every day but had never talked to. Mostly that was great, since we were all cold, bored, hungry, worried, etc…

        But even though I continued seeing many of the same people, we didn’t really continue talking after that.

  13. I actually moved to Seattle because of the positive interactions I had on public transit here. Its absolutely a case by case thing and if you don’t have the social common sense to read cues then you will fail miserably, but I’ve had some amazing conversations with a lot of completely normal people. You could probably even learn something from the “crazies” if you tried not condemning them as such.

  14. I would have interpreted the photographed sign as a place for more quiet contemplative work space. In multi-train car, it’s entirely possible that an entire car-load of folks would want to be reading, quietly staring out the window or not listening to someone else’s recounting of what they ate for lunch and decision on dinner to their housemate who they will see in fifteen minutes. It could be a place where they are just trying to concentrate because they flexed part of their mandated work hours to do work while they were on the train, a task that’s impossible when loud conversational bits punctuate our our consciousness. Or maybe they want to take a nap. I think the converse “Cell phone car, have all the conversations as loud as you want in here” is a great idea. It could also be the “Screaming babies don’t get scowled at here” and “Your toddler can totally run the aisle all day long here” car.

    As for striking up conversation, I’ve had my fair share of awkward conversations on the bus, but it’s not a huge deal. The worse offenders, in my view, are the once who are drenched in perfumes of some sort and hop on a packed bus. You can shut down a talker by moving, you can’t necessarily get away from that scent on a bus once it’s permeated the air.

    1. The worse offenders, in my view, are the once who are drenched in perfumes of some sort and hop on a packed bus. You can shut down a talker by moving, you can’t necessarily get away from that scent on a bus once it’s permeated the air.

      Those drenched in perfumes are bad enough, but I’ll still take that over someone who reeks of B.O., urine, or feces.

  15. I’ve heard this go both ways; those who don’t mind/enjoy a conversation while riding transit, and those who’d like absolute silence.

    Nearly everyone will agree that the reason people use transit is to get to where they need/want to go, so there needs to be something between. And there’s cities like Spokane and Vancouver, WA, that have definite transit communities, sooner or later you’re very likely to run into the same people.

    Two who’d like quiet won’t be an issue, since they’ll keep to themselves. Two who’d like to converse will also be OK, they might even start a conversation with each other. I can be either, some days I just want to get where I’m going, some days I’ll be on the same bus as a friend, others I’m open to conversation if anyone’s interested.

    My thought is if one doesn’t like conversations and runs across someone who likes to talk, the former should have the right to say “I’m sorry, I don’t like to talk to people on the bus (or train, or etc.).” The latter has the responsibility to accept and adhere to the request, which should apply to any/all future times they run across each other. (Please note: crimes are a totally different matter that should still be handled through appropriate means.)

    And speaking of the Amtrak sign, did anyone else here hear of the woman who was kicked off an Amtrak train between Oakland and Portland earlier this year for talking on her cell phone for 16 hours? She was removed at a crossing in Salem, OR, and someone had to drive down there to get to Portland.

  16. The South Sounder USED to have a quiet car, but it was cancelled some time ago. I’m not sure why–commuter rail agencies all over the country have embraced the concept recently and have been adding quiet cars. We seem to be going against the trend. That said, when I take the Sounder (for fun), noise usually isn’t a problem. Let’s face it: the caliber of Sounder passengers is pretty high. But still, out of seven cars, one could be marked for quiet.

  17. I grew up riding the NYC subway in the 1970s so I learned etiquette well.

    Keep quiet. Don’t look at anyone especially in the eye. Sit as far away from the guy talking to himself as possible. Don’t get on the empty car. Breathe a sigh of relief when the group selling cards for 10 cents invades the car. If you get bored, read the overhead ads for rubella vaccination a about 100 times…

  18. Definitely keeping quiet is the best approach, since it’s the least likely way to make someone uncomfortable. Ride the T-bana in Stockholm to see where that approach has been perfected…pure transit riding nirvana.

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