Let’s talk, stranger: Why our subways should have conversation cars

15 01 2011

Via New York Daily Times: Let’s talk, stranger: Why our subways should have conversation cars


For decades, one of my chief pleasures as a New Yorker was chatting up the person next to me on a packed subway car. I’ll admit to a bias of trying to converse with pretty women – but a conversation with even the least attractive member of either gender would often prove to be enlightening.

And most people were glad, even eager, to talk, especially when all they were doing was passing the time between, say, W. Fourth St. and Columbus Circle.

But such spontaneous conversations are becoming rare on city trains and buses. The sound of silence reigns.

Quite simply, times have changed. More and more travelers are immersed in their iPods, iPhones, iPads, Android phones, Kindles or other electronic devices.

Subway cars now resemble libraries or monasteries. That’s why the recent altercation over New Jersey Transit’s Quiet Commute program, with commuters arguing over the precise definition of what constitutes “quiet,” is especially silly. With a pair of earbuds, we can all have as much solitude as we’d like.

But what about someone who wants to engage in an activity that used to be normal: talking to the stranger next to him or her? What if, instead of treating your morning commute like a yoga retreat, you actually wanted to take a (wholesome, noncreepy) interest in one or two of the several thousand human beings around you. Where’s the car for that? Where, on your bus or train, do you go for decent conversation?

Let me admit that the fault lies as much with me as with the people around me. I am often attached to my own electronic media device. I watched eight seasons of the show “Scrubs” on the subway on my iPhone. Lately, I’ve been reading from my own Kindle. To converse with someone else, I must first  disengage myself electronically. Once that’s done, I must then find someone else already equally disengaged. That’s two very high hurdles to jump over at eight in the morning, or after a long day of work.

All of which leads me to a modest proposal: The Conversation Car. In this train car (or bus section) one would be assured, upon entering, that fellow passengers are ready and willing to chat. Putting speakers against your ears or a screen in front of your face would earn frowns as severe as those now cast at someone who conducts a business call in a Quiet Car.

This would, first of all, help in some measure to restore the dying art of conversation – especially the spontaneous kind, when you haven’t already prepared your stock answers about all matters mundane.

And it would also restore that measure of accidental contact for which New York is famous. After all, the person jammed next to you could be from Sweden. Or from Queens. Or a Swedish queen. But if you’re just zonked out on your iPhone, you’ll never know.

There will be some rules in my proposed Conversation Car: no insults (hard for some New Yorkers, I know), no overly aggressive come ons, no street preacher crazy talk. Just ordinary people enjoying incidental, temporary company instead of plugging in and tuning out.

A dose of conversation might just be the new, much-needed antidote to our solitary digital domains.

Alex Marshall is editor of the urban planning newsletter Spotlight on the Region




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