Stop Being So Cynical, Londoners Should Embrace Public Transport 'Chat Day'

Fleabag was onto something with Chatty Wednesdays.

One of my first memories of moving to London almost five years ago is getting on the Tube, trying to strike up conversation with someone – and failing.

In Telford, where I grew up in the west Midlands, this was the norm. Complete strangers would initiate lengthy conversations on the early morning bus to the town centre – and we’d become transport pals. I wouldn’t have hesitated to turn to a stranger and ask: “How are you?”

In London, things are different. The city is huge. The chances of bumping into the same person on your commute each day are slim, so these opportunities to chat are rare. Add headphones, folded arms and grumpy faces to the mix, and seeing a duck riding on the back of a unicorn becomes a more likely occurrence than having a chat.

I learned this the hard way on my first few days in the capital. I tried to make eye contact with people, and their eyes darted away. When I smiled, they looked confused – borderline upset. I’d never witnessed such a bizarre reaction to friendliness before. London felt like a hostile and isolating place and, in some ways, I still think that to this day.

Charlotte Steeples Photography via Getty Images

Today is ‘Chat Day’ on the UK’s public transport network where the likes of Arriva, National Express, Virgin Trains, Transport for London and Greater Anglia (to name a few) are encouraging passengers to have conversations.

Bus, train and coach companies are hoping to inspire interaction by rolling out creative ways to engage with one another. On Virgin Trains, all ‘C’ coaches on the West Coast route will be rebranded as ‘chat carriages’, with some services offering customers a free hot drink to give to a stranger.

Arriva is placing ‘conversation starter’ cards on bus routes across England, Wales and Scotland, while National Express will welcome actors performing poems to kickstart conversations on a bus which connects neighbourhoods in Birmingham.

The day forms part of BBC Crossing Divides, which aims to tackle polarisation in society at a time when loneliness is impacting a huge portion of people’s lives.

More than nine million people of all ages in the UK are either always or often lonely, suggests a study by Co-op and British Red Cross. Meanwhile, a different study from Rotary Great Britain and Ireland found two thirds of people rely on the TV for company in lieu of real social interactions.

One particularly heartbreaking story that stuck with me was from Mandy Gould, who blogged about the time she met an elderly lady on the bus to Camden. It was the woman’s 75th birthday and she was dressed in her finest clothes on her way to the cinema. Mandy recalled how the woman told her: “And I can’t bear spending it alone. I don’t even care what I see. I’m just going for the noise really.” For the rest of the journey they chatted about the woman’s birthday and the buildings they passed. “The small talk that I would usually take for granted had made her afternoon,” Mandy recalled.

Chat Day has the potential to make many people, such as that elderly woman, feel seen, heard and slightly less alone. So we should embrace it – even if it’s for just one day. But as always, people have taken to social media to moan about the day, or boast that they’ll be running in the opposite direction if someone tries to strike up conversation.

It’s one day in 365 where people are encouraged to do something a little bit different – to have a chat with a stranger, to be kind. You’re not being asked to do a naked bike ride or remove your trousers on the Tube (both days exist and seem to get far less of a narky response by the way).

So maybe on your way home today you could smile at the person sat opposite you or make eye contact with the elderly person on the bus.

You might even venture as far as saying ‘hi’ and commenting on the fact the weekend is finally here – and perhaps it will spark something beautiful. Fleabag was onto something with Chatty Wednesdays.