Mal Fletcher
Tube Chat? Office Chat Would Work Better

Social media in the UK have given a chilly reaction to a new campaign designed to encourage strangers to talk to each other on London’s Tube system.

The Transport for London authority, which is responsible for the Tube network, is also wary of the idea.

Jonathan Dunne, an American NHS worker, came up with the notion of having people wear badges emblazoned with the words “Tube Chat?” to indicate that they are up for a conversation while travelling.

Whilst Mr. Dunne’s intent and follow-through is commendable – he paid for the badges himself – the execution may reflect a poor understanding of the “culture” of Tube travel in London.

It’s true that we live in a world of absent presence. Many of us spend too much time engaged with the Cloud through digital gadgets and not enough interacting with people immediately around us.

There's growing evidence in urban studies worldwide that our preoccupation with gadgets can negatively affect the quality of our thinking and our relationships and face-to-face communication skills. I’ve written extensively on that subject, as have other pundits and, more importantly, neuroscientists and psychologists.

That said,  I'm not sure people find the Tube and similar transport facilities an ideal place to chat.

Most of us make only very short trips on the Tube, so any conversation with fellow passengers is likely to be very stilted and shallow, which can become very tiresome if one does it often enough. 

Let's face it,  there are only so many times in a day that you can express an opinion on the weather, sport,  or the state of public transport (a perennial subject for grumbled interactions on the Tube).

A Tube trip, or a daily bus commute, is usually a means to an end. We tend to be focused on what we'll  be doing at the other end: what’s waiting for us on the work desk or in a meeting; what we’ll prepare for dinner; how to entertain the kids on the weekend.

We're not really in the kind of mental space that lends itself to meaningful or even enriching conversations.

There's a wariness, too, about chatting on the Tube. In part, that's an extension of the natural British reserve when it comes to informality. This is something our American cousins puzzle over.  (It’s not surprising that an American came up with the Tube Chats idea. Theirs is a more naturally chatty culture, for the most part.)

The wariness, though, is also related to the fact that Londoners, like billions of other urban dwellers worldwide, live in mostly overcrowded spaces, with precious little privacy.

Fifty-four percent of the world’s population now lives in cities. We add three million people to cities globally every week. Urbanisation is a key plank of globalisation, but it comes at a significant human cost, especially in terms of a sense of intrusion.

Tube trains are often over-crowded spaces, too, where people just want to be left to themselves. Because people don’t normally chat on the Tube, we can grab a precious few minutes of downtime with a book, a newspaper or our favourite music.

On its best days – that is, when stations and carriages are not bursting at the seams and unconditioned air isn’t stiflingly hot – the Tube offers an opportunity for us to catch our breath between engagements or commitments.

Understandably, people want to guard that time jealousy, preferring to remain as anonymous as possible.

This is not to say that journeys can’t be made more interesting through conversation. In more than 30 years of global travel, I’ve had the privilege of meeting some fascinating individuals on planes, for example.

A short conversation with the Crown Prince of Denmark and his then fiancé on one long-haul flight was welcome, especially as I was living in Copenhagen at the time. Other chats with leaders in business, science and media have also been rewarding, at least for me (I can’t speak for my partners in conversation!).

However, those conversations tended to evolve quite organically. Yes, someone took the initiative to kick-start the dialogue, but the talk flowed naturally, without feeling forced.

Wearing a badge to suggest the possibility of a conversation comes across as unnatural; it says: “Hey, talk to me, it’s my cause, a campaign I’m on…”

Encouraging conversation is a great thing, but I wonder whether the venue is wrong. Perhaps the modern office needs it more. Most workspaces desperately need to see a humanisation of a heavily digital environment.

Major companies such as the Bank of America have recently reorganised their lunch and coffee breaks because internal studies have shown that their most productive team members are those who mingle the most.

People need human contact in order to be productive and to find meaning in their work. Perhaps an Office Chat campaign would be more effective and helpful – and more culturally acceptable. Dear Mr. Dunne, have you considered…..  

Hear Mal Fletcher's BBC Radio interview on this - click here.

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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