There are few places where collective silence is the preferred mode of communication.
Our theaters and cinemas have become hideously noise-polluted places where the thoughtless and cretinous indulge in talking and rustling of paper and bags, while jabbing away at their mobile phones.
The London Underground system, aka the Tube, has for many years been a haven of peace—a long-suffering, slightly tense peace perhaps with everyone in their particular moods coming to and from work, and notwithstanding the occasional loud, drunken asshole--but peace nonetheless and one that is cherished.
Today, badges and a little pieces of paper appeared across the Underground, inscribed—using the familiar typography of London Underground itself--with ‘Tube Chat?’
The little pieces of card read: “Have a chat with your fellow travelers. Wear this badge to let others know you’re interested. You’ll benefit from a daily chat. Start using it today.”
Would Londoners take the bait, and service their own and their fellow travelers’ long-buried need for connection and conversation by talking to one another? Would British reserve be atomized? Would London encircle itself in a big, friendly group hug?
No, by the iciest of Maggie Smith stares, it would not.
The headline in freesheet Metro summed up brilliantly the askance reaction: “Panic Across London as People On Tubes are Actually Asked To Talk.”
Even worse for transatlantic relations: the originator of the Tube Chat initiative is American. Jonathan Dunne, who works for the NHS, is originally from Colorado. The 42-year-old had 500 badges made (for £100/$130), and started handing them out at Old Street station on Wednesday morning.
However, this being London on a typical weekday morning, his efforts were not met with cheer and thanks.
“It's been wild,” Dunne told the Daily Beast. “I handed them out yesterday. This morning, there were two tweets about it, mocking me, and then I went to a meeting, got back and the world had gone crazy.” He was not surprised by the negative response. “You're so compartmentalized here, you sort of go into a trance on your way to work. It's not the same as in New York. New Yorkers, even though they have a reputation of being brusque, tend to be a bit friendlier.”
The online response to Dunne's desire to connect was fairly immediate, with one bright spark crafting a badge that simply read “Nope.”
And: “Wake me up if a dog gets on.”
Another person showed what they would do if someone approached with a ‘Tube Chat’ badge.
Somebody else mocked up a badge saying simply of the new initiative: “Weirdo Magnet.”
Somebody else noted the vexing grammar of the #tube_chat hashtag:
There was this emphatic refusal:
And this even more emphatic refusal:
Dunne told the Daily Beast: “I thought this would be a laugh, it wasn’t terribly well thought out. I thought there would be more interaction when I was handing out the badges. I don’t walk around talking to people on the train, but I thought it would be fun to talk to people when handing out the badges. But that part was really tough. Making eye contact with people on the street: some people don’t like that. People leave the station and go to work, they’re not in the mood for it—it was much harder than I thought it was going to be.”
Most people looked down and scurried away from him, said Dunne. Others took something just because it was free, and “20 per cent of people” acknowledged him, in a “fleeting, move-away-quickly kind of a way.”
Dunne, who described himself to the Daily Beast as a “pretty laid-back sort of person,” is from the rural town of Durango. Colorado, he said, was “the sort of place where you can wear jeans to a funeral.”
He has lived in London, on and off, since 1996, so must be aware of the prevailing atmosphere of public transport, a reporter suggested. “But the prevailing atmosphere sort of sucks,” he told a reporter forcefully. “Everyone should just lighten up a bit. What drove me to this was getting annoyed by my colleagues at work ignoring me, and me them, on the street and on the Tube. The whole situation is ridiculous. Why can’t we be like, ‘Hey,’ and nod at each other? Being in the same carriage and pretending we don’t see each other really irritates me.”
Given the online and media conflagration today, he was briefly transformed into the office celebrity, although his colleagues “joined my wife (Tia, also American), in giving me a liittle bit of an eye-roll. She is definitely not the type to hand out badges or talk to people on the train.”
"People are worried about crazy people on the Tube,” he added. “But people should be really worried about crazy people on the internet. The guy making crazy YouTube videos of me is much crazier than someone saying ‘hello’ on the Tube.”
London can be an isolating place, so regardless of the snarky tweets aimed against him, there were others who welcomed Dunne’s desire to get people to connect.
But these positive responses were few and far between, and Dunne seems to have realized that the predominantly negative reaction to his scheme simultaneously proves his point—people don’t talk to each other on the Tube—and disproved it, in the sense that, for now at least, they would like to keep it that way.
Somebody proposed a new badge for anyone wishing to participate in a chattier Tube, with a colorful flourish of particularly English name-calling.
Another headache for Dunne presented itself in the shape of Transport for London, whose typography his badges emulated.
A TfL spokeswoman told the Guardian: “It’s definitely not something we have created. We are trying to get in touch with the people behind them as we never allow people to use our branding unless they have our permission. This sort of stuff is quite dangerous; we don’t want people to get confused. While it is an interesting idea, we don’t want people using our branding.”
Presently, TfL gives out “Baby on board” badges for expectant mothers to wield when wanting a seat—presumably because people are so rude or in their own worlds they fail to notice pregnant women needing a seat. Badges for disabled and less able travelers are also being trialed, said the Guardian.
Dunne told the Daily Beast that he had so far handed out 495 out of 500 badges. A second batch of 500 badges is about to be delivered. He has decided to target a more “convivial” Tube station next time—possibly Russell Square, “assuming TfL doesn’t destroy me for copyright infringement,” he said quietly. “This whole thing hasn’t been thought out that well,” he added for a second time. Still, he said, brightening, someone had called and said they had somehow bought 5000 badges, “so I have a fan.”
As to the to the future of his campaign, Dunne noted soberly that “it’s ‘here today gone tomorrow.’ I’m sure people will move on to the next thing. But I would be happy if it caught on. We’ll see.”
Not all the response to Tube Chat had been negative. Somebody wittily noted the confusion the scheme could cause in France.
Dunne is certainly brave: by Thursday night there was a rather menacing-sounding plan to meet at Embankment tube station to mobilize against his innocent, if flawed, initiative.
Perhaps Dunne has been successful after all: he has finally roused London commuters to collective action and protest—even if it is to maintain silence on the Tube.