Dare I talk on the train?
August 30, 2006 1:10 AM   Subscribe

Should I make friends on the train?

I'm a school student commuting back and forth to school every day and I almost always see the same people on the train. Other than pre-existing friends, there's always an eery silence.

Dare I speak to fellow train passengers? If so, how to break the ice? Is it possible to introduce myself to females (male here) without seeming a sleaze? Should I even do this?

What's your MeFi take on this great social issue?
posted by PuGZ to Society & Culture (54 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I commuted for five years on the same train. Never really had a conversation with the other regulars, except to ask for a seat.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:23 AM on August 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

Yeah, well, what would your reaction be to someone randomly starting a conversation with you?

I'd find it annoying, unless you are one of two things (or both): physically attractive or/and intellectually fascinating.

If you are, go nuts. The world is yours.

Hell, go nuts anyway. Worst than can happen is you give someone a good enough story to tell their coworkers or classmates that morning. Or anonymously annoy them.

Or, you might make someone's day.

But, yeah, you'll probably just annoy them (no slight on you, just weighing the odds).

Good luck, though. Dare away.

Also, with the girl you're obviously staring at every day, don't make it too obvious. It's probably sweet, but creepy. Wait until you see her in a naturally social setting.

Then creep her out.
posted by converge at 1:35 AM on August 30, 2006

It seems to be an American no-no. I think your best chance for conversation is if there's forced conversation to begin with - "Could you hold that door for me? Thanks, I appreciate it.. late b/c of ___", & hope a conversation starts from there.
posted by devilsbrigade at 1:37 AM on August 30, 2006

On a short ride, no.

On most longer (1 hour +) commuter trains, there is usually an unofficial "social" car for those folks that want to chat.
posted by madajb at 1:43 AM on August 30, 2006

I have a friend who did this with her train - it worked, she always had a lively commute in, and even now, long since she's changed jobs, she still meets up with some of her 'train crew'.

The mere fact you're asking this q suggests you have the oh la la to get a good conversation going, but I think you need a partner in crime to make it a regular, group based activity. Find him/her and you'll be away.
posted by einekleine at 1:46 AM on August 30, 2006

Speaking from a British perspective, commuter trains, where you have to see the same people every day, never. On inter-city trains, however, even the Brits often strike up conversations with people sitting opposite or adjacent to them (usually inspired by "why is this train so fucking late isn't it a disgrace").
posted by randomination at 2:04 AM on August 30, 2006

From another British perspective, I sometimes feel that it would be nice. It depends on the journey though; most south-eastern commuters are just chilling out or poring over the morning paper before getting to London. I'd guess it depends on whether you can make that initial eye contact to see whether that person is up for talking.

On non-commuter journies, I'd really like people to spark up more conversations.
posted by TheDonF at 2:11 AM on August 30, 2006

Response by poster: RE: Finding a partner in crime - good idea!

converge posted:
Also, with the girl you're obviously staring at every day, don't make it too obvious. It's probably sweet, but creepy.

Actually, this post was inspired by two commuters (one girl and one boy, unrelated) who make a habit out of nigh-on staring me down every trip. I've been thinking maybe I should see what it's all about, but thought I ought to gauge the Mefi first!
posted by PuGZ at 2:16 AM on August 30, 2006

I've been traveling with the same girl from our life parisian subrub to our work parisian suburb (same cities in both cases, then) for the the last four years. I've come to notice her changes in hair color, if she tanned in summer or took some weight here or there. I'm pretty sure she recognizes me too. Almost every morning, we get on the train at the same door, the one that opens on the stairs out at the arrival station.

I'm pretty sure even if I was single all that time (am not), I wouldn't dare even just asking her name. Commuting is annoying enough that you don't want to have to talk to stringers while you could be working on resigning yourself to a bright sunny day at your low-pay job.

Then again, had I been single and she strikingly beautfiful (and a reader to boot), all bets are off :)
That'd be one great story to tell your grandchidren : "How did you meet grandpa ?" "Well, he had the guts to talk to me during our daily commute." "Woah! The nerves!" :)

So, as always, YMMV.
posted by XiBe at 2:19 AM on August 30, 2006

See if they go to school with you. Provides common ground.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 2:22 AM on August 30, 2006

In principle, this is possible, but in practice you need to be very careful of people's personal and psychological space.

I say, try the experiment, but start very very small. Start by smiling. If the person you smile at doesn't call the cops/mace you/yell "get away from me, freak!", then, good. Once that's done, move on to saying "hi", just briefly: lather, rinse, repeat. Maybe, one day, you mention the weather and actually talk.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:46 AM on August 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

I start conversations with strangers sometimes. Mostly, it doesn't work and the conversation dies within seconds. But on some occasions it goes on (and on and on) to the point that I'd wish I hadn't started it. On rare occasions it turns into something great. I always learn something though. I think its worth it to get out of your own head a little.

One quick story: A good friend of mine met his wife on the NYC subway. He saw her, scribbled a little poem on a piece of scrap paper, added his phone number and handed it to her on his way off. I think he did this many times before it worked.
posted by recurve at 3:01 AM on August 30, 2006

I've done the commuting thing in Canada. The only people I've had regular conversations with are a couple of people who got stuck on the subway and got stuck on the train with me on the same day. I also knit and have had single conversations with people about knitting.

That being said, one awesome conversation I had was with a group of people who didn't know each other wishing that more people would talk to each other on the train.
posted by cathoo at 3:17 AM on August 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

Well, like I said, dare away.
posted by converge at 3:18 AM on August 30, 2006

I used to work with someone who met her partner on her daily commute ("Dates On A Train"?). They'd been silently flirting with each other for a few months and then he finally plucked up the courage to ask her for a date. And it went from there.
posted by TheDonF at 3:22 AM on August 30, 2006

I've made the same journey into work for the last six years and see the dozen or so same people on the train every morning, in the same carriage, the same seats. Most of us read the free Metro paper, other people have their books, iPods, there's a bible or two. Nobody makes eye contact or initiates any conversation. I like it that way. I like to use my journey to work to get into the day (I'm an early commuter, on the train by 6.15am).

As randomination said, on long-distance journeys, where you won't see the other people again, it's more likely a conversation will start.
posted by essexjan at 3:27 AM on August 30, 2006

I know someone who pulled on the bus to work, don't know if they're still together.

A friend of mine took the same longish train journey every day but didn't talk to anyone until the train broke down between towns in the middle of nowhere in the middle of winter when they all had a good moan/chat/share and ended up with a big gang of train friends she still saw some socially a while afterwards. Basically I'd say you need something to break the ice, do that without being seen as creepy (and different people will have very different standards for that, and they'll probably vary geographically) and you're away.
posted by biffa at 3:30 AM on August 30, 2006

bah , just talk to the lot of them - if they think you're a wierdo , thats cause theyve watched too many dodgy tv shows/news items or read too many scare stories in the papers - not your problem - you're striking a blow against the atomisation of society and i salute you sir : )
posted by sgt.serenity at 3:37 AM on August 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

In my experience (West of Scotland) there are lots of conversations made on the commuter journey. I have made friends with people on the train which have subsequently developed way beyond the bubble of the 30 minute journey into the city. I think it helps that Glaswegians are often gregarious and it helps to have people who are a little less reserved in order to initiate the conversation. I would suggest that the key thing is to know when someone is interested. If the conversation is dead on its arse after a few minutes then leave it. It may pick up the next time. It may not. But at least you will have tried.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 3:45 AM on August 30, 2006

If you're nervous about doing it on the train, can you try it on the station platform? It might be easier to strike up a conversation when you're not already in the deathly silent carriage. If you start talking to a fellow commuter outside and then continue when you get on others might be more amenable to conversations later. Or they'll think you're a blabbering fool disturbing their time before a long day in the office.
posted by patricio at 4:10 AM on August 30, 2006

I think you should go for it, but just be wary. Lots of people enjoy being able to sit on the train and stare into space, or read their book, or think about stuff. Put into that context, all these people sitting together and not talking makes more sense than it might initially seem.

Someone striking up a random bullshit conversation when you're trying to finish an exciting novel is extremely annoying. Some hot girl asking you what you're reading as a way to chat you up is ace.

So yeah, strike up a conversation, but only if you think you might actually have something to talk about. Check out what they're reading, look at their clothes to find out whether you might move in similar circles or go to similar gigs, or if they just seem intriguing, then go for it. But don't start up a useless conversation with someone for the sake of it.
posted by pollystark at 4:53 AM on August 30, 2006

If you need to talk to strangers on a train, try a 'good morning' and a snippet of small talk, but give up if it is not reciprocated with some enthusiasm. If the other person is just responding to you rather than volunteering questions and opinions, they probably are simply answering you out of common decency rather than interest.

Other than pre-existing friends, there's always an eery silence.

Do you mean no one is yakking loudly about everyday weather patterns, no one is yelling "I'm on the train!" into a phone, and no one is listening to a personal stereo loud enough for everyone to hear it leak from the headphones? For me, that would be a happy silence.

I travel the same route every day and I am glad to have the time to myself. I know some of the daily passengers because we work together, but I try not to sit near them because I want that time for reading, not for chatting. When I do end up sitting next to someone I know, I sit down, smile, say hello, maybe drop a quick chunk or two of lubricative small talk, but do so while I'm obviously taking out and opening my book. Most people I know would understand and probably have their own books to read. Looking around me, it seems that a lot of other people are happy to just look out the window and think about things while no one is interrupting them.

If you do find someone to chat to, remember that other people hope you will keep the volume down to a personal scale. Not that you should have to do as other people like, but if you're out to make friends, you probably don't want to make enemies simultaneously.
posted by pracowity at 4:54 AM on August 30, 2006

Never ever ever ever talk on the morning train. Even to someone you know. You will get, and will deserve, the cold stare of death.

On the train home - go ahead talk away.

Seriously no talking in the morning.
posted by JPD at 5:03 AM on August 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

I know a lot of people like time to themselves, but often these people are obviously occupied, eg, with book or iPod. Those that aren't, I would say go for it. I've met a couple of friends on my morning train commute, one of whom is still quite close even though my train days are over. When one of us didn't want to talk, we would just pull out a book and the other would take the hint.

It may be easier to break into a small group that has already formed, too; if you see them talking, you know that they are the types who like to socialize on the train rather than work or sleep.
posted by tentacle at 5:14 AM on August 30, 2006

Just start out with a "hey, how're you doing", and try to guage their response. If you just get a grunt in return, then they don't want to talk. If you get more, then maybe give more.

I'm actually surprised at the 50:1 no-talking ratio on here..

And seeing JPD's response, I agree -- do this on the train ride home.
posted by inigo2 at 5:41 AM on August 30, 2006

I second JPD. Never in the morning. In the evening, be wary. I sometimes try to hide from people I know even, not because I don't like them but because train time is Me Time. Even if I don't look obviously busy, I don't want to talk to people. Others are nicer and friendlier. I hope you find those folks.
posted by dame at 5:42 AM on August 30, 2006

As a Southerner who moved to New York City ten years ago, it took me about a year to learn to stop talking to people I didn't know. :-)

These days, if I'm riding Amtrak, I don't tend to strike up conversations unless I'm in the lounge car. And god knows, never on the subway (although once or twice my enthusiasm has overwhelmed me when I saw someone reading a book I really enjoyed, and my expressions of interest seem to have been kindly received and perceived as nonthreatening.)

I have had some delightful, memorable, long boozy talks with complete strangers while riding the trains in England.
posted by enrevanche at 5:46 AM on August 30, 2006

I wouldn't unless the person is making eye-contact with you or gives you some other signal that they are interested in a conversation.

If they're commuting, it's very likely that they are tired, cranky, and just want to be left alone to listen to their Ipod, read their book, daydream, whatever.

And yes, a lot of people will think you are crazy/annoying for trying to strike up a conversation. I've noticed the only people who actively tried to make conversation with me when I commuted via public transportation were end-is-nigh religious freaks and sketchy middle aged men.
posted by tastybrains at 5:56 AM on August 30, 2006

Talk to them. The world needs more friendliness, not more personal parochialism.
posted by notsnot at 6:16 AM on August 30, 2006 [2 favorites]

I have a bunch of bus friends, and this is for a 10-minute commute down the street.

Without exception, the intro has always been commiserating about the late bus/crowded bus/weird people on the bus/weather.
posted by desuetude at 6:18 AM on August 30, 2006

I wouldn't just start up a random, "how's it going conversation", though. Start with sympathetic rolled eyes against a common foe, work up to regular acknowledgement, and go from there.
posted by desuetude at 6:19 AM on August 30, 2006

Travel with a baby or a cute dog. Random strangers won't be able to keep quiet. I realize dogs aren't allowed on the subway, but maybe you can borrow a baby for a day? In more general terms, maybe change something about your appearance (wear a funny hat?) or bring along an unusual prop. People are sure to start conversations, e.g. What is that thing?
posted by libraryhead at 6:34 AM on August 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

Talk to whomever you want. If they are not into it you will know it.

You don't need to a robot.
posted by Slenny at 6:34 AM on August 30, 2006

with one exception, everyone who has ever started talking to me on a bus/train has been: a) trying to chat me up or b) a weirdo who wants to tell me about his favourite train or latest drug deal.

the one exception was on the bus to school (aged, oh, 17?) when the one guy who regularly got on the bus before I did (we were the only ones who travelled for more than a half hour or so) said one day 'hey, you go to my school, don't you?' and we became bus-friends. Turned out I took maths with his girlfriend. Common ground works.

I'd probably have been less open to it if he hadn't had blue hair, though.
posted by corvine at 6:41 AM on August 30, 2006

If you're worried about being "a sleaze" when talking to women that you are actually not hitting on, you might explicitly mention that in conversation, so that it's definitively not flirting.
posted by softlord at 6:43 AM on August 30, 2006

If you want to engage in conversation a train, catch a subway train after last call.
posted by empath at 7:13 AM on August 30, 2006

libraryhead: these are great ideas! The dog or baby will often make the first contact for you.

Personally most of my commuter conversations have been with drunks who take the slightly later trains - or tourists who get lost. I tend to talk to the tourists first. The drunks - well you guessed it.

Some more gratuitous celluloid inspiration - simply because there are so many great movies which deal with this:
North by North West
The Lady Vanishes
Caught on a Train
Brief Encounter
Bullet Train
posted by rongorongo at 7:21 AM on August 30, 2006

I've often found a lament on the state of something appropriate (disrepair of the seats, garbage on the train, lateness of the schedule) uttered to no one in particular to be effective. The people who want to have a conversation will reply. The people who don't want to have a conversation will ignore you. No one will feel particularly put upon since you weren't talking to them anyway.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:37 AM on August 30, 2006

my initial response was "oh, good lordy, no" but i am in new york and we all carry a passive/aggressive mistrust of others up here.

upon further reflection, i have had decent conversations with strangers on the subway, but never during commute hours. mostly at night, usually when some or all of the participants are feeling boozy. during the last election i used wear a clever button indicating my political leanings, and carry a big pile of them with me. i'd hand them out to strangers who seemed to be eyeing it appreciatively. that was always good for some conversation.

(on preview: or you could randomly offer people advice on buying a houseboat.)
posted by sonofslim at 7:49 AM on August 30, 2006

A friendly "hello" or "good morning" to whomever you sit next to might be all you need to break the ice.
posted by chrisch at 7:56 AM on August 30, 2006

Sure, I'll take a houseboat!

I've had lots of train and bus conversations over the years. It works best, I find, with a simple innocuous compliment - "great shoes" or "I like your glasses" or "I loved that book, are you enjoying it?" The other person will then generally make it clear if they are open to conversation or not - often with non-verbal cues such as eye contact or lack thereof and you can take it from there. I've been on the giving and receiving end of such conversation openers with both men and women and have rarely if ever found it creepy.
posted by judith at 7:57 AM on August 30, 2006

posted by matteo at 8:01 AM on August 30, 2006

If you're worried about being "a sleaze" when talking to women that you are actually not hitting on, you might explicitly mention that in conversation, so that it's definitively not flirting.

I disagree. You shouldn't have to say it- if you aren't hitting on them, that will be clear and vice versa. And frankly, plenty of women will assume you're hitting on them, whether you are or not.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:06 AM on August 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

I don't commute, so take this with a grain of salt, but I agree with AmbroseChapel.

With anybody that I see regularly, what I do is nod or smile at them for a while, then after a couple of weeks (or maybe a month or even more) I progress to a 'Hey' or 'Hi', then after a while maybe a 'What's up?' or something similar and before long I'm having conversations even with the security guard at a 7-11.

The nod or smile works as an aknowledgement that you recognize that person and is completely non intrusive, but it also makes people more comfortable with having a conversation with you. Also, it helps that you don't look like an annoying cheery morning person.
posted by Penks at 10:02 AM on August 30, 2006

I'm not a daily commuter but I take the metro when I can. I'm usually not interested in conversation with strangers but I don't mind if someone tries to chat. I answer politely, briefly and don't give them my full attention. It's only annoying if they persist after getting this hint.

Take the hint, when it's offered you. Otherwise, have at it... morning OR night. Some of us are far more sociable in the morning when the day is new and the world hasn't shown us yet again that it's full of prats.
posted by phearlez at 10:26 AM on August 30, 2006

There are many approaches a guy can use when striking up a conversation with a girl, but no matter how you do it, keep it light, with a sense of "I won't force you to interact with me." Dudes who come on too strong can easily be perceived as creepy, aggressive, or dangerous, depending on the setting - a "hi, how are you doing today" in a crowded train car is quite different than the same line delivered in an empty alley. Being in the train car gives you a slight initial advantage in the direction of non-creepyness - use it.

You can better your chances of women, and people in general, engaging in coversation with you by respecting and responding to their body language and cues that they either do or don't want to talk to you. This doesn't require a degree in sociology. It's as simple as, if she isn't into talking to you, drop it.

It sounds easy but I'm always amazed by how many people (meaning, men) don't get this. I think it is definitely possible to strike up a conversation with a stranger in a legitimate and innocent (i.e. non-sleazy) way. I'm convinced the keys are a friendly smile and the unspoken "get out of jail free card" of letting the other person off the hook as soon as they don't seem interested in the conversation.

And you never know what may happen - the girl who won't say more than "hello" to you the first day may initiate a more substantial conversation with you the next week, assuming you don't push her into it.
posted by jessicapierce at 11:03 AM on August 30, 2006

I'm convinced the keys are a friendly smile and the unspoken "get out of jail free card" of letting the other person off the hook as soon as they don't seem interested in the conversation.

Please. There is nothing worse than being trapped by a chatty person when you have no way to escape.
posted by agregoli at 11:47 AM on August 30, 2006

Please also refrain from yelling, singing, asking for money, or talking about Jesus.
posted by witchstone at 11:49 AM on August 30, 2006

Regular commuters tend to be extremely cold with each other, prefering to ignore the prescence of others around them. However, if it' s late at night (or earlyhours of morning) I find that people definitely tend to be more responsive to small talk (especially if you've got food).
posted by cholly at 8:29 PM on August 30, 2006

I don't have a Melbourne perspective but certainly in Sydney it does happen a little, especially amongst the younger crowd. As cholly said, strangers catching public transport at night certainly talk (I've had quite a few chats from catching Night Ride myself). Buses on Sydney are another matter, where conversations with strangers happen all the time (to me at least).

But here's the big thing, you're both young and Australian (and I'm assuming so are many of your fellow commuters). My advice? Just go for it. It's certainly a lot easier if your with a friend, as it reduces the whole creepiness factor. Make your first statement something to do with something you observed (Example: last week while travelling with my friend, she asked a guy with checkered pants if he was a chef, and then the conversation went from there).

But basically, in Australia with (but no exclusively) young people, yeah, it happens a fair bit. Don't feel too weird. Just feel confident.

A little bit of trivia, there was a TV show on SBS called "Going Home" that was based around the conversations of a group of strangers who all caught the same train home from work.
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 8:57 PM on August 30, 2006

There's nothing in the world to be lost from a smile and a "good morning" to people you see every day, regardless of gender, so long as you're not interrupting their reading, iPodding or sleep. There may be everything in the world to gain.

It's a shame that such a question even has to be asked.
posted by Dreama at 10:11 PM on August 30, 2006

Response by poster: For what it's worth I did indeed strike up a conversation on the morning train and they went out of their way to find me on the afternoon train - seems I made a new friend! Good advice all 'round, thanks Mefi. :-)
posted by PuGZ at 12:31 AM on August 31, 2006

That's really cool, PuGZ! Good for you.

So...how did you end up breaking the ice?
posted by macguffin at 1:18 AM on August 31, 2006

Response by poster: Luck was with me -- they were running late and I ever-so-kindly held the door open. A few thanks later, they pointed out that they've been catching the same train as me for quite some time and we joked about all the "regulars" and how we'd invented names and stories for all of them. Much easier than I had expected!
posted by PuGZ at 1:34 AM on August 31, 2006

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