Muting commuters

I’ve noticed something about commuters and their cell phones: the stronger the network coverage, the louder the voice.

Image via Stocksy

My sister adores her commute to work—45 minutes in the car with the radio on, nobody disturbing her. I wish I could say the same.

Commuting on public transportation can give us the chance to reflect on the day ahead, make to-do lists, catch up on the news, admire a fellow passenger’s pair of shoes, or think about what to prepare for dinner. It’s also a precious window of time to appreciate what we’ve been blessed with.

Frustratingly I often feel that I’m blessed with fellow commuters who’ve got the one thing I don’t have—100 percent network coverage on their cell phones at all times. As the train trundles into the bowels of the city, it’s their chance to chat with friends, colleagues, loved ones, and even their family pets. Blackouts don’t even seem to deter them. These chatterboxes just blatantly disregard the signs on trains and buses instructing them to use their phones respectfully.

Even more frustratingly, after dedicating hours to observing this chatty bunch, I have developed a golden commuting ratio—based on “silence is golden”—the stronger the network coverage: the louder the voice—and there’s all sorts of loudness; from deep bellowing, to shrill squeaking, to habitual S H O U T I N G. It’s not a pleasurable experience to be caught up in people’s traumas, tangled love affairs, and general displeasures in life. It’s even worse when these are followed by a string of highly flavored expletives. Many commuters have no qualms about sharing extremely intimate details of their lives with Tom, Dick and Harriet, but I really wish they wouldn’t, especially when my children are with me, listening to all the gory details intently.

Sadly this isn’t confined to public transportation. You can now find this in restaurants, shops, movie theaters, and even the park. I often wonder if the worst offenders are mistaking their phones for microphones and we’re their audience. If these “shows” were interesting or inspiring perhaps I wouldn’t mind, but they’re generally just noise pollution.

But, I suppose, if I thought about what would make us better commuters, the answer would be spending more time talking with the people right beside us.

There’s no getting around the fact, however, that cell phones have become a huge part of our lives, whether we like it or not. If I leave home without mine I feel panicky and I just have to go back and get it. What if my children have a problem and they can’t contact me? What if I miss a group discussion on WhatsApp? And as the ultimate shopping tool, what if I can’t take a selfie in a dress and send it to my sister for her opinion? I’m sure this has saved me from many a fashion faux pas … if she is being truthful, and, come to think of it, if she actually has good taste! So cell phones can be a real godsend but I do try to do my phoning in public discreetly, considering those around me. I don’t want everybody to hear the advice that I’d look better in a darker dress with fewer pounds!

Given this, I don’t expect to get on a train or bus and be met with a wall of silence. Conversation reassures us and makes us feel part of everyday life and society. But, I suppose, if I thought about what would make us better commuters, it would be spending more time talking with the people right beside us. It may be the only opportunity the elderly man next to you will have to speak with someone all day (and you may end up with a few pearls of wisdom while you’re at it). And instead of secretly admiring those passenger’s shoes, compliment her—it may just make her day.

All this is easier said than done, though, and sometimes we just need a bit of calm. Luckily that’s when we can don our headphones and drown out the sounds of bellowing Bob barking goodbye to his dog at a thousand decibels down the phone.

Cerith Gardiner
Cerith Gardiner
Cerith Gardiner was born in London and has been living in Paris for 14 years. She spends her time working as an English consultant, acting as taxi driver to her four children, and wondering if she'll ever be as stylish as the French.

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