On Train Etiquette and Cultural Differences

I spend a lot of time on trains these days. I love public transit, for the not driving, for the people watching, for the ability to read quietly and get some work done on my way from one place to another, for the ability to not have to deal with parking. And I simply love trains, as I always have, from early childhood. The grand sense of adventure when you hear the cars rattling down the track and the moment when the doors open…even when it’s a light rail train on a line I’ve taken countless times before, I can’t help but feel a little excited when I hop on and swipe my Clipper card.

Trains are also a fascinating place of cultural collisions, for me, because they are one of the places in which differences in etiquette become very readily apparent. It’s not just about what we perceive as good manners, but also about what kinds of conditions are normal to us, what is tolerable, what we view as acceptable — and how in the West, one set of conditions is viewed as superior, while another is backwards, lesser, suspect.

I am accustomed, for example, to the default etiquette that you wait for everyone to get off the train before boarding. This seems like common sense to me, especially on crowded trains, where it may be difficult to coordinate flocks of people going in opposite directions. If you wait, you will see which areas of the train are open, and you can move accordingly. Also, people trying to get off won’t get trapped on the train, which has happened to me on more than one occasion despite my most aggressive and assertive pleas to let me off.

I am also accustomed to the norm that you make way for someone who wants to share the bench, though I would note that many men, particularly white men, seem to believe that their testicles require two seats. If someone is standing and there are seats sitting empty because people are occupying them with backpacks or refusing to scoot over, I will gaze askance at them.

I am also accustomed to both avoiding seats set aside for people with physical impairments, pregnant people, and older adults, and to yielding my seat on the train to these individuals. This is an area of weird tension for me, because I do have a neurological disability that makes it difficult to stand for long periods of time, which does mean I’m entitled to those seats, but I don’t ‘look’ disabled, and I don’t want to get into an argument over it — which is why I have on occasion arrived in San Francisco utterly exhausted and upset after being forced to stand all the way. This is also why I do not ask people to get up, because I don’t make assumptions about the disability status of other passengers — although it irks me when I see someone obviously deliberately ignoring someone who should be allowed to sit.

I am accustomed to a huge number of small things that I couldn’t necessarily spell out for you (stand on the right, walk on the left), but know in my environments. They are familiar and comforting and I think of them as the ‘right’ way to do things on public transit. They are accepted and so engrained that I don’t even think about them, because they’re as natural to me as wiggling my toes in the sand when a wave laps over my feet. I just do them because that’s what I am supposed to do, what I have learned to do through direct instruction and observation and cultural osmosis.

If you asked me to articulate train etiquette as a phenomenon, I would probably be surprised, because I would assume that you’d know. Who doesn’t, after all — this is kindergarten stuff, right? I, like many, fall into the trap of assuming that everyone has been taking public transit forever, that everyone is familiar with a specific system (how I remember the furious blush I experienced when I rode a MUNI bus for the first time on my own and I didn’t realise that I needed to push the yellow bar to open the doors, and the entire bus shouted at me), that everyone is familiar with the cultural conventions that surround public transit in a silent social contract.

Yet, transit etiquette isn’t the same everywhere, and not everyone has the same norms about personal space and about use of the train environment. Some communities are far more willing to endure crowding than white westerners, for example, which can create tensions on crowded public transit where we feel like we’re suffocating and other people are perfectly comfortable — or don’t understand why we’re not yielding a few inches of precious space. They don’t understand why bus drivers will zip right by even when they’re waiting, because they don’t perceive the bus as being unable to take on more passengers — sure, some people are standing, but there’s still room.

I’ve been thinking about these issues a great deal lately as I move back and forth on transit, and watch people on transit. San Francisco and the Bay in general are a great place to do that, because people come from so many different backgrounds, and so many different cultures. I can see immigrants and tourists and people who have been living here for generations, people from all kinds of racial, ethnic, class, and cultural backgrounds, and I can watch the ways in which they navigate public transit…and I can think about how my own assumptions about what is ‘normal’ and ‘right’ should shift.

Image: Visions of BART, John Morgan, Flickr.