I have something to admit: I think I love being a grumpy London commuter. Don’t get me wrong – I would almost certainly be happier with no commute at all, but there is something fascinating about how unique and bizarre our capital’s daily trudge has become.
It’s not that I like spending my time on the tube – can’t say I love being artfully wedged between a rucksack and two suitcases with my neck bent at an angle resembling the girl from the Exorcist, desperately waiting for the wifi at Westminster to kick in so I can send that WhatsApp that’s been undeliverable since Bank.
Nor do I particularly revel in dancing my way through Waterloo, dodging troops of tourists, children, and slow walkers (the absolute worst) whilst at the same time fearing the seemingly all too familiar announcement: “This service has been cancelled. Please wait for further information” is a sentence that will send a shiver down the spine of any hardened Londoner.
But what I do enjoy is the predictable – and more often the not-so-predictable – behaviour of our fellow travellers.
Isn’t it weird that when such a massive number of people come together, we don’t communicate at all? The chattiest woman will become statue-silent; the charming man turns awkward and clumsy – the only noises are occasional ‘tuts’ escaping from frustrated travellers when someone blocks the aisle, or stands on the wrong side of the escalator. And god forbid that you make eye contact with the person whose face is mere inches from your own.
People stare in disbelief at the two friends loudly catching up on the tube, at the excitable child giggling in their pram, or at the man daring to eat a smelly burger on the train. We’re so well-trained to reveal nothing about ourselves – not a smile, a laugh, nor any hint of personality.
It’s easy to spot an ‘out of towner’ – they tend to have that wide-eyed bewilderment expression glued to their face. They’re the ones who will try and catch your eye to share a smile; who attempt to kick up conversation with a simple “How do I get to Oxford Circus?”; who are appreciating and absorbing the sights of the city (even from deep underground).
But why do the rest of us seasoned travellers abhor this reaching out so much? We outwardly neglect each other, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not observing and taking things in (check out the Metro’s ‘Rush Hour Crush’ for some wonderful examples).
I wonder what life would be like if we lifted these societal boundaries. What if we were ‘permitted’ to engage in conversation or treat each other more like friends? I appreciate that sometimes we need to be alone with our thoughts, and that a commute can be the perfect place for that, but I feel it could be beneficial for us all in stepping back and taking in the world around you.
I recently sat next to a Londoner on the tube who took me by surprise. She struck up conversation with the people around her. She didn’t know them, but she engaged commuters in conversation – and these commuters really enjoyed it. This woman didn’t want anything in return – no numbers or even names were exchanged – but the act of giving simple compliments was enough to lighten the day of those around her.
Here at Steps we realise and embrace the fact that everyone has their differences and that it may be tempting to treat colleagues like commuters from time to time. But we also encourage the fact that being inclusive is the key to a healthy working environment, where we can evolve to be the most productive and successful versions of ourselves.
Maybe being more like the woman I witnessed and engaging everyone in conversation, no matter who they are, will enable us to grow our companies, and ultimately grow as people.