The Commuter Conversations Experiment

I've recently become a public transport commuter. Thanks to living on campus at university and then a career based on shift work, the last time I regularly clambered up and down the bus steps or pushed the button for the train doors was at school. And since then, there’s been a major change in the way we commute.

My Mum remarked in a passing comment, “Public transport is so quiet these days. Everyone has head phones in and is looking at their phones. You never talk to the person next to you and that’s so boring.”

Disclaimer here. I’m one of the commuters she’s talking about. If I’m not bopping away to the top 20 on my phone, I’m tuning into the twist and turns of the latest episode of a podcast. If I’m not in the mood for either of these? Well then there’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, e-books and emails.

Her comment got me thinking, what would happen if I rode the train sans technology? For a week, I decided to ditch the (head)phones and see if there was any difference in the way I viewed my trip to and from work, or the way my fellow commuters viewed me.

Day one:

I realised what Mum was talking about. The silence was deafening. I kept staring at other commuters hoping I’d lock eyes with someone who would notice I’d taken the giant leap of faith and left my phone in the depths of my handbag, knowingly nod and then say ‘Hi’. Alas, that was far from the truth. I made it to my stop without a murmur. I was bored and disheartened, fearing how long the week’s commute would feel.

Day two:

Someone spoke to me! The lady next to me asked if she was on the right train for the stop she was headed for. Sure, there’s nothing to say she may not have tapped me on the shoulder, gestured for me to take out my headphones and asked the same question if I was hooked up to my phone, but I felt I had made her more at ease by not being glued to technology. We had a brief chat and then I was merrily on my way.

Day three:

Silence. I was ready to give up on the experiment – what had happened in Monday’s podcast episode? What colour beige was Kim Kardashian wearing today? What is the number one song on the charts? The FOMO was real. I decided to stick with it though and instead of staring at my fellow commuters with desperation in my eyes, I turned my gaze outside.

You know what I saw? A picture-perfect sunset. No joke. I paused to think how beautiful Brisbane is. Again, there’s a chance if I was listening to music or a podcast I might have seen that same sunset, but even if I had, I wouldn’t have stopped to appreciate it.

Day four:

Hooray! There were people on the train talking to each other! They weren’t adult commuters in the midst of their daily grind but a group of University students, and boy was it refreshing to hear chit-chat!

I remember once being told the best inspiration for ideas is listening in on others’ conversations. I’ve used that as my excuse for eavesdropping time and time again. And today? I heard two guys asking their classmate for advice on their latest assignment. I heard plans for the beach the next morning and the absolute highlight, a brainstorm of lyrics and beats for a hip-hop jam sesh that afternoon. I begrudgingly hopped off at my stop, wishing I could hear more.

Day five:

The trip to work was silent. I was halfway home, still silent. I decided I wanted action. I decided to do the unthinkable. I struck up a conversation with the guy next to me. He was head down in his phone but didn’t have headphones on. It was now or never.

I realised how out of the ordinary it is nowadays to start conversations with a stranger. What excuse could I give? How many questions could I ask? What if he ignored me? What if he thought I was flirting? I was nervous, I was unsure. But I did it.

Under the guise of pretending to be lost I said that age-old opener, ‘Hi’. And we chatted. We talked about how quiet the carriage was (despite it not being the designated quiet carriage), we talked about work, weather, weekend plans. And you know what he said at the end of the conversation? “Thank you for talking to me”.