Did commuting steal their souls?

04Jun10
Rainham train station

My local train station

Commuting is undoubtedly one of the least pleasant aspects of my day to day life. This is largely thanks to Southeastern trains, but it would be wrong of me not to give credit to the huge number of commuters I share my journey with.

At my local train station, on the train itself and at London Victoria, I pass by hundreds, maybe thousands of commuters every day. With such a large cross-section of human beings, you might expect to see the best and worst of humanity revealed.

If that is the case, then we are all doomed. Because in actual fact what I see every day are normal people – people like you and me – deserting their manners, sensitivity and empathy to become unpleasant, rude and bolshy human beings.

Today, I was waiting alongside my train with hundreds of other tetchy, fidgety passengers for the doors to open. As they did, there was a huge surge forward as commuters fought for their seat. In doing so, they did not allow a poor young girl with a suitcase to disembark and left her fighting to keep her balance. I moved out of the way like everybody should have, and yet she felt compelled to thank me as no one else had afforded her this common courtesy.

But the most annoying part was that there was no need to push and fight for a seat; there were plenty of seats left and they didn’t fill up for a while.

I’ve seen this same manoeuvre time and time again – undiscriminating desertion of basic politeness. If you’re old, frail, over encumbered; it doesn’t matter! You will never be worth losing a seat for.

But this is just the start. On a daily basis, I am pushed past at the station, ‘raced’ onto the train, wrestled for armrest space once seated. I struggle to ignore the extremely loud music seeping through leaky headphones, excessively loud ringtones and ‘private’ conversations at unnecessary volumes. If I found out that my manager spoke about me publicly the way these people do about their staff, I’d be appalled.

Additionally, I am regularly frustrated by those who feel they have more right to a seat because they have a season ticket. If anything, we have less right, as we are afforded discounts for buying tickets in advance. I commonly hear complaints from fellow passengers that children shouldn’t be allowed on trains between certain hours, as if mothers have less human rights than we do. (Please note, I’m not a mother, and screaming children rile me as much as the next person.)

I see people who are clearly injured, elderly or pregnant, forced to stand as everyone looks away instead of offering their seat. I’m happy to say that my boyfriend is one of the few people I’ve ever seen offer to relinquish his seat to someone who needed it more than he did. And when he did, the woman was disproportionately grateful for his kindness.

This is just a selection of the behaviour I witness daily, and in a way, I can see how the ‘rat-race’ can take its toll on people and really affect them. But I’m a commuter too, and seeing people act this way is having a negative effect on me! I need to know that people are still basically good, because if the London transport system is a microcosm of the country as a whole; I may have to consider emigration.

(I’d just like to add, I still have some hope. I’ve been to some lovely places in the country and met plenty of well mannered, pleasant people. It’s only a shame that I’m not exposed to it more often to provide me with some kind of balance.)

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4 Responses to “Did commuting steal their souls?”

  1. 1 Becky

    Nice piece. I have to admit, it is one of the things that upset me, working in London. You do see the worst of people – I think it’s like that in most cities of the world, though. As Desmond Morris points out in his book ‘The human zoo”, it is almost like a survival instinct for humans to become more self-preserving and less altruistic in people-dense situations. Our brains have not evolved as quickly as our technology and we are not equipped to cope with living in such massive city ‘tribes’, and the most sensible way to get about your daily business is by keeping your head down.
    In addition, there is very little benefit for a train commuter, travelling alone, to give up his seat for someone else: I believe altruism isn’t entirely selfless, and it works best if people who matter to you witness your altruistic act (look at the kudos you gave Keith for giving up his seat!). That way you are thought of as a worthy person, which is obviously a good thing.
    There are a number of ‘sensitive people’ (like us) who find it hard to turn a blind eye to humanity’s insensitivities (this is why I’m now a veggie), who, consequently don’t thrive on city life. Only proper bastards can do that! ;o)
    Bec

    • Desmond Morris sounds like he definitely has a point. It makes a lot of sense, that we haven’t evolved as quickly as our technology, I hadn’t though of it that way. Just to note though – I wasn’t with Keith when he gave up his seat, but he did tell me about it afterwards 😉

      I wonder how many more years it might be before I start elbowing people out of the way to get the seat I want on the train, or if it will ever come to that. While I agree with you that altruism is not beneficial to the lone traveling commuter, can’t everyone just imagine how much more pleasant commuting could be if we were all just polite and a tiny bit more considerate?

  2. 3 Becky

    Just happened across this article http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8730106.stm
    about how to spot pregnant women. It is a good point nowadays that what with their being quite a high proportion of obese women (and men) around, no-one wants to commit the cardinal sin of offer a seat to a fatty!

  3. Haha, good article, I enjoyed reading the comments on it! It’s a difficult one for sure, I’d be distraught if someone mistook me for being pregnant in front of loads of people. I would encourage women to ask for a seat if they felt they needed one.


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