Why You Should Talk To Strangers On The Tube

By Londonist Last edited 109 months ago

Last Updated 24 April 2015

Why You Should Talk To Strangers On The Tube

“He’s always smelling people’s feet on the tube. I try to explain that he has a foot fetish but that doesn’t really help things. He loves it down here though, it’s just one big cavern of smells for him.”

How do you spend your commute? Thumbing through a fifth-hand copy of the Metro? Trying to avoid getting your head wedged in a taller commuter's armpit?

Maybe you don't try to strike up a conversation with anyone around you — maybe you actively avoid it. But if that's the case, you're making a huge mistake.

The tube doesn't have to be a black hole of human interaction (even if it is very dark and hole-like down there). If you try to talk to strangers on the tube you never know what you might discover. People who look like everyday commuters have fascinating stories to tell, and big dreams they’re willing to share if you just ask them.

“During the civil war people knew who they were fighting. They were fighting the government. Now no one knows who is fighting. Someone will look like a normal person and then they go into a cafe and kill forty or fifty people. They say it’s for religion but it’s not. Their religion says you shouldn’t kill anyone, you shouldn’t harm anyone.”

Not convinced? Take your lead from Commute Blog — its one aim: to discover surprising stories from London's commuters. It began on a long journey across London, from the depths of Clapham South out to the lesser-spotted Zone 6, where the first photo was taken. The idea to talk to and photograph people on the tube came partly out of sheer nosiness, partly out of the feeling that there must be something better to do on an hour-long tube journey than stare into space.

You never know who you might meet. It could be a burlesque dancer, or a rower aiming to make it into Team GB, or someone brushing up on their Rubik's Cube skills on their commute (there's a surprising amount of them on the tube!).

“The Rubik’s Cube is something to do on the eight stops I have on this line. Between here and Victoria is a personal best but I don’t think I’m going to manage to complete it this time.”

Some of the most interesting stories have come from the most unlikely sources; one classic is the small Jack Russell with a foot fetish, whose owner also turned out to be a Bafta-winning documentary maker. Another was a woman who had left Somalia during the civil war, and talked for a long time about the current situation there and how passionately she still longed for her home comforts.

Conversations aren’t always so deep. Sometimes they can turn into a free-for-all, with everyone keen to join in and have a chat, swapping stories of where they’ve been or what they’re up to.

Very few people are completely unwilling to talk. Most are in the same boat (or train) as you are, just trying to pass the time getting from A to B. Since no one has ever been openly rude about not wanting a chat. A simple 'no thanks' and a few awkward minutes while you wait for the next stop is the worst thing you're likely to endure. However, it's wise to avoid anyone wearing headphones, the universal sign for Do Not Disturb.

“I did the face paint myself. It took about three hours - I just found a picture I liked and copied it. I have about a thousand hobbies but right now I’m going to play football, which people always find surprising because I also like to skateboard.”

If you're feeling inspired, the Victoria line tends to bring out the chattiest of the bunch. Perhaps it's the joy of knowing you're not trying to cross London on the deathly slow Northern line. Speaking of the Northern line, avoid trying to strike up a conversation anywhere between King's Cross and Camden, as you won't be able to hear a word anyone is saying. Unsurprisingly everyone is more friendly after 9pm — London's watering holes quite possibly have something to do with that.

Talking to the people around you on the tube can draw you in to discussions you never thought you’d have and show you a side of life you might never have thought about before. And the best thing? The people who can tell you these brilliant stories are all around you. You just have to start the conversation.

Words and photos by Amy Dicketts. Like the sound of Commute Blog? You can follow it on Facebook.