Mom, Stop Talking to Strangers on the Subway

You know how when you’re a kid, you learn the basic safety “rules” of how to act in public? Look both ways before crossing the street. Don’t accept things handed out from strangers. Don’t talk to strangers.

These rules still apply for adults, especially in New York, but many people (both tourists and people who live here) don’t acknowledge them. There’s a big cultural difference between living in New York and living in most other cities in America (likewise, there are plenty of differences between most American cities and each other).

In the midwest and the south, the two other parts of the country I’ve lived in for most of my life, people are generally friendly. They greet strangers on the street, and feel comfortable talking to just about anyone. My mom has lived in Las Vegas for about 8 years, but before that, she had lived in the Midwest and the South her entire life. She’s a very nice, friendly person, and she likes to meet new people. When she was here two weeks ago, she was very friendly and tried to strike up a conversation with just about everyone- people on the subway, cab drivers, her masseuse… it was admittedly a little embarrassing.  Nothing against my mom, of course. It was just a major cultural difference here that I didn’t warn her about (and that probably wouldn’t have mattered to her if I had…)

But people here just don’t do that.

Yes, many of us are nice. And yes, we all like to make friends. But we have a very strong unspoken rule: Do not talk to people on the subway. (We also have a lot of other unspoken rules of the subway).

If you are on the subway, you shouldn’t be talking to strangers. You can talk to whoever you’re with, but NOT strangers. Just don’t. This is their Zen time. This is when they read their books and newspapers, listen to their iPods, or just close their eyes and rest to mentally prepare for their day in the city. Also, there’s a pretty good chance that the person sitting near you doesn’t even speak your language. It’s equally possible that the person might be totally insane.  Or they just don’t want to talk to people.

Most of us don’t have cars. You probably wouldn’t want to have to make small talk with strangers on your commute. We need some quiet time in our own heads for a little bit.

I was surprised at how quickly I adapted to this, and how much I love it. I really hate small talk. Having an extra hour or two to read without the distraction of the internet or tv is really nice. Don’t interrupt that time. I like observing other people on the subway, but I don’t want to talk to them. It’s not a matter of not being outgoing or friendly either. Here, you need to save that for parties and bars. A lot can be said with facial expressions and body language. Let’s keep it to that.

There are a few exceptions to this rule though. Here are the acceptable instances where you can talk to people on the subway:

  1. Questions about that particular ride. “Does this train stop at ___?” “What did the announcer just say?” “Where do I go to transfer to ____?” Despite our unapproachableness, people generally don’t mind giving directions. We understand the subway can be confusing if you’re new to it.
  2. “Excuse me, you just dropped something.”
  3. ::Sneeze:: “Bless you.”
  4. ::Something weird happens on the train:: In this case, it’s acceptable to make eye contact, shake your head, roll your eyes, or say “UGH.” You’re all annoyed. Bond over it. Just don’t be the weird or annoying thing that other people are bonding over.
  5. “Would you like my seat?” You SHOULD say this to people who are elderly, pregnant, or disabled, but you can also say it to someone who just looks like they need to sit.

I kind of like the secret, unspoken connections between people on the train. But I like keeping them secret. This happens to me all the time with books. I frequently see people reading my favorite books, and it’s really comforting and usually makes me smile. I don’t say anything to them, but it’s nice to know that someone is experiencing, at that very moment, something that has made me happy before. A few nights ago on the train, I saw a teenage girl who was reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I kind of wanted to say something to her, but I didn’t.

Why? I could have said something about how that book is amazing, and one of my favorites. But that would have been unnecessary. She was already reading it (and wasn’t very far into it), and she didn’t ask for my opinion. She would find out how great the book is soon enough. It’s not like she needed someone to convince her to buy it. (However, if I were in a book store, and I saw someone looking at it, I would probably say something. But that’s different.) If I were on the train reading a really good book, I’d honestly rather just read it than have a stranger talk to me about it. (And that has happened to me before- with a David Sedaris book. We talked about Sedaris for a few minutes, but that was it.). I guess it might be a cute way to meet a guy, but since I’m not trying to do that- just let me read, thanks.

I think in our world of social media/oversharing, we sometimes forget that we don’t need to share everything with everyone. Our need to share doesn’t automatically trump everyone else’s need to not hear what we want to share.

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2 Responses to Mom, Stop Talking to Strangers on the Subway

  1. Seashell says:

    Even with Richmond being in the south and everyone here being so friendly, not talking to strangers on the bus, with the exeption of your rules above, is the norm and I love it. It’s the one time of day I know I can read totally uninterrupted!

  2. James says:

    I was watching the Twilight Zone (the one from the 60’s) and noticed how adults always talked to strangers and even kids. These days if a man sat down and started talking to a kid, his parents would scream and call the police. What happened to society? It reminds me of that myth about poison / razor blades in the Halloween candy. It actually never happened.

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