Rules of the Road

TaxiReading Fox’s chapter on “Rules of the Road,” I noticed some big differences between English and American culture, especially with regard to to the part of the States where I’m from. Fox observes that interaction between English commuters on the train or Underground is almost nonexistent, with a few interesting exceptions. While I haven’t spent much time on public transportation (there’re no underground lines in Kennett, Missouri or Memphis, Tennessee or Lexington), I feel that I talk to people when I am taking a shuttle, bus, or train. I’ll usually try to find common ground by inspecting them. For example, when I see someone in an Ole Miss shirt, I’ll drop a subtle “Hotty Toddy” and ask them what they think about the Rebels’ chances next season. If they are reading a book I’ve read, I’ll ask them what they think about a particular chapter or section. I find that the ride is much easier and less awkward when you recognize each other’s presence and acquaint yourselves.

Fox mentions that English people commonly open up to one another and ignore the “denial rule” when they can moan and complain together. This was one thing I do think is common in the US. When I’ve been at an airport gate and the flight is delayed, everyone will say “Delta does it again” or “this happens every time when I connect through Atlanta” (people complain about the Atlanta airport a lot). While this is a great icebreaker, I don’t find that Americans then follow the complaint with a strong fear of continued conversation. If anything, it’s an easy way to get to know someone.

“Oh, do you fly through here often?”

“The same thing happened to me just last week when I was headed to…..”

I also found the car rules to be different. For me, this difference applies more to small town America than bigger cities in the US. Growing up, I always found it common to wave and nod from the car to people passing through town. I would even honk when passing a friend or pull up next to someone to wave hello if I recognized their vehicle. This is a change from the “invisibility” of the car “castle” that Fox discusses.

I think I prefer our way of interacting when traveling. It’s a small world, and you never know when you’ll run into a friend of a friend or someone with an interesting story to tell.

Car wave

  • I completely agree that there is almost non-existent interaction between English commuters on the train or Underground, especially when compared to the US. I’m from Houston where public transportation is rare (I drive everywhere at home); however, whenever I’m up north visiting my sister in New York or even taking a plane across the country, I always keep my headphones in just so people won’t try to talk to me. If I’m traveling and see someone wearing a Texas shirt or anything that resembles home, I will usually talk to them. However, I generally try to avoid talking to complete strangers. On one occasion when taking the three hour train ride from New York to DC, I sat next to a man who within minutes of getting on the train engaged me in conversation, attempting to tell me every detail of his life. I tried to put my headphones in so he would stop talking to me; however, he continued talking for the next three hours unphased by my subtle attempt to hint to him that I didn’t want to talk. I have never had any issues like this in London. I never have to keep my headphones in just for the purpose of preventing people from talking to me- the British don’t like talking to strangers just as much as I don’t like talking to strangers. I’ve discovered in the past six weeks that my travel habits fit in much more with British culture than with American culture.

  • Hayden,

    Great observations. I’ve found many of the aspects of British road rules that you’ve depicted above to be true in my own experiences in London. Like you, I grew up in a small suburban town with little to no public transportation. Even so, on my semi-regular trips to New York City, I’ve found myself talking to strangers on trains and busses on many occasions. Our conversations usually start with some establishment of common ground, which is built up casually through some type of mutual complaint or preference. Similar to you, I’ve found that these commonalities usually come in the form of a shared complaint about transportation inefficiency, or some comment about a school/sports team/organization that a person is wearing on their clothes. I would add, however, that conversation in the U.S. does sometimes start with weather talk; though Americans don’t rely on nor enjoy talking about the weather as much as Brits, they still do to an extent in order to avoid awkward social interactions. Finally, I definitely feel you on the car rules. At home, I wave to other drivers a minimum of 3 times a day. Here, I’m lucky to have a driver give me a wave of approval to cross the street safely. I think I enjoy the more intimate nature of driving in a small town, as it always puts a smile on my face when I pass a friend on the road and we exchange friendly honks.

    Overall, a very thoughtful and insightful post. Well done.



  • I agree with your comments on how interacting with fellow travelers makes the process of getting from one place to another more enjoyable. When I was coming back from a Spring Break trip in high school my flight was delayed for several hours then cancelled. It was interesting to see different ways people became friends with each other while passing time in the airport. For example, two children on my flight became quite popular at our gate after they bought grapefruits from one of the nearby newsstands and attempted to sell them to people waiting for status on the flight. After the plane was officially cancelled many people stayed at the same hotel and all tried to coordinate scheduling the same flight the next day. Even in the UK, Cory, Katherine, and I found some Brits break Fox’s rule of not talking to each other on the tube. We were en route to the London Eye and wound up talking to a traveling guitar player the whole ride there after asking him if we could pet his dog- something that, based on Fox’s chapter, seems like it doesn’t happen very often. I think talking to fellow travelers makes commuting more interesting and is a great way to meet people one wouldn’t otherwise.

  • I never use public transportation at all when I’m in the United States. The closest thing I’ve experienced is airport travel. If I am in NYC, I will occasionally take the subway. Generally speaking, I walk everywhere when I can. That’s what I love about Lexington. In London however, that’s not at all possible. I’ve had to adjust tremendously. To my chagrin, I have had to use the tube to get to work everyday which means going through the crowded tunnels with so many people.

    I will have to disagree with Fox about people opening up when they can complain. I’ve been on the tube at least twice a day for the past two months and I’ve yet to notice anyone talking to one another on the train unless they came on together. Trust me, they have plenty of reason to complain when cramped in a small train. I personally feel this is one thing that Brits have in common with Americans. No one truly likes to reach out to strangers on the subway or the plane.

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