Despite being part of everyday life, subway remains an ambiguous space, both familiar and disturbing, anonymous and distinctive, crowded yet isolating. Anyone who has been on a public transport should be very familiar with this eerie experience of collective solitude. The daily rituals that commuters perform are very specific, similar to strict rules: stay as far away to other people as possible, don’t smile, don’t make eye contact. Most importantly, never talk to anyone.
That is the public transport etiquette. But what if the rules are wrong?
According to a 2004 study published in the journal Science, commuting is associated with fewer positive emotions than any other daily activity. From noise- cancelling headphones to more spacious sitting, governments are trying to make commutes slightly more bearable.
But again, what if the main problem lies in the total lack of human contact? What if research shows that to routinely ignore each other is not good for us?
A study conducted by researchers the University of Chicago Booth School of Business has recently found that talking to strangers increases one’s well-being to a great extent. Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroder, authors of the experiment, recruited over 100 Chicago commuters and asked them to start a conversation with a stranger. The professors then compared their experience with that of those who sat alone in silence.
The result? Talking to a stranger was a positive experience for most and it did not affect productivity. “This research broadly suggests that people could improve their own momentary well-being — and that of others,” Epley says.
Funnily enough, all participants instead thought that their ride would have been more pleasant and their day more productive if they sat on their own.
The opposite is actually the case: sitting or standing in solitude is not the antidote to the dreaded daily commute. Instead, this total lack of communication is the inherent frustration and paradox of the subway, of a space which is, as French anthropologist Augé’s suggested, “both everywhere and nowhere”. A “non space”, where we are all alone in a crowd.