Train etiquette can be a controversial subject matter, with some seeing taking phone calls, doing your makeup or eating food a necessary part of a busy lifestyle, while others think it’s plain rude.
The reaction to Professor Robert Winston’s tweets on the topic prove how divisive the issue can be. The IVF pioneer and ‘Child Of Our Time’ presenter tweeted a series of complaints about a woman having a loud phone conversation of his train, and included a now-deleted photo he’d taken of her. While some accused the scientist of being an “internet bully”, others sympathised, sharing their own frustrations with inconsiderate commuters.
In light of the debate, we asked around the office to find out what pet peeves people have about train passengers and spoke to etiquette experts to see our vexations are justified. We also found out what to do if someone annoys you on the train, and spoiler: it doesn’t involve posting a photo to 40,000 people.
1. Don’t have loud conversations
It’s not just Professor Winston who’s irritated by loud talking on the train. Reporter Natasha Hinde shares this pet peeve: “We don’t want to hear your 100 decibel minute-by-minute rundown of your trip to the doctors on Tuesday or want to hear what you had for tea. Please shush.”
According to etiquette coach William Hanson, when it comes to talking on the train, whether it’s to your friend or on the phone, you need to check if you’re in the quiet carriage first.
“Obviously if you are in the quiet carriage there is no reason why you should be talking, unless it is some sort of medical emergency,” he told HuffPost UK. “That said, if I’m sitting in a regular carriage and a call comes through, I will always move to the vestibule and have a conversation there. Partly because I don’t want everyone to hear my conversation but also because I don’t want to inflict in on them.”
Etiquette expert Jo Bryant added if you need to answer your phone, “keep it quiet and quick, and arrange a better time to chat”. She also said to keep face-to-face conversations “to a low volume”.
2. Keep makeup on the train to a minimum
Doing your makeup on the train is a divisive issue at HuffPost HQ. While some of the team do this every day, I’ve witnessed a woman wiping her excess foundation on the seats and am not a fan.
Bryant said when it comes to makeup etiquette there is “a difference between a quick fix and putting on a full face” on the train.
“Applying the works with an audience can make people feel uncomfortable and is probably best done before you leave the house. That said, it is a matter of balance, so if you tend to the final touches or a bit of lipstick en route to work, it is unlikely to ruin anyone’s morning,” she said.
However, Hanson disagreed, saying “ladies, or men, shouldn’t put their makeup on in public really because it’s seen as grooming, in the old sense of the world, which should be done in private”.
3. Don’t eat smelly or loud food
Reporter Amy Packham was so frustrated thanks to a noisy eater, she had to move from her seat. “I could basically hear the crunching in my ear. He grabbed about five crisps at a time, shoved them in his mouth, crunched loudly with his mouth open and sucked the crumbs off his fingers,” she explained.
According to Hanson, “eating a chocolate bar or a biscuit is perfectly fine” on the train, but you should be aware of smelly food.
“Certainly hot food is never a good idea because it can produce rather unpleasant odours throughout the carriage,” he said. “It’s only a small, relatively narrow space you are cohabiting. Even something like a satsuma or an orange can reek, although it’s not the most unpleasant smell, it can be obnoxious.”
Bryant added: “Be aware of your personal space (elbows in), minimise any noise (crunching, chewing) and clear up all your rubbish when you have finished.”
4. Never complete personal grooming
Writers around the office had horrific stories of witnessing personal grooming, from squeezing spots to plucking eyebrows, but as writer Sophie Gallagher pointed out, the perpetrators never seem to realise how grim their behaviour is.
“The woman opposite me had nail clippers out and was cutting her nails into her handbag. They were going everywhere,” she said.
Hanson said there is no place for personal grooming in public: “If you haven’t had time to do it in the morning before you’ve got on the train, then tough.”
5. Avoid painting your nails
Much like makeup, painting your nails in public is divisive, with some among us thinking it’s totally fine, while reporter Amy Packham is not a fan.
“I was sat on a table seat on a two-hour train journey and the girl opposite me used the time to not only take off her nail varnish, but then paint her nails. It was a hot day and the smell of the nail varnish remover was bad enough, let alone the nail varnish, too,” she said.
Both etiquette experts said painting your nails is something you should save for home due to the smell of varnish. Hanson added: “You shouldn’t treat a train like a nail bar.”
6. Be aware of your music volume
Overhearing someone else’s music, even with your own headphones on, is something almost all of us have experienced.
According to Hanson: “Listening to music from your phone is totally fine on a train journey - so long as you are using headphones. Playing music through the phone’s speaker is never acceptable and will only irk the other passengers.”
Bryant added that even with headphones, “music should be played at a volume that is not audible to others”.
What should you do if someone breaks a golden rule of train etiquette?
According to Hanson, it’s not the biggest crime to tweet about someone’s annoying behaviour on the train in general, but you shouldn’t include a photo of them. Having said that, he said tackling the situation head-on is a better approach.
“If you ask someone in a reasoned and logical tone, they generally, even if they disagree with you, will cease the behaviour, even temporarily,” he said.
However, Bryant acknowledged this isn’t always easy. “It can be awkward to approach them and it slightly depends on the nature of offence. It may be easier to ask someone to turn down their music than stop munching on a smelly burger,” she said. “Rightly or wrongly, more often than not we tend to take the very British approach of put up and shut up.”
If all else fails, Hanson recommended telling a member of staff about a fellow passenger’s inappropriate behaviour, especially if you suspect they are drunk or if they have ignored your polite request to alter their behaviour.