Tube Etiquette: The Exclusive Guide to Being British While Under the Ground

A loud thump. Then a tired voice over the loudspeaker tinged with familiar irritation: "Please don't run into the doors. There is another one coming in three minutes. Just wait for it." In his mind I can imagine a flurry of unspoken swear words and name-calling yelled at the mirror every night to unleash his anger towards the human race. I get it.

The Underground. When you live in London, the familiar circular signs become friends among a sea of strange faces and street names. Wherever you are, so long as you find a tube station, you'll be ok. And they're everywhere. Coming from Auckland, a city with only one train line that runs through it, I made a goal upon arriving in London: to become an excellent public transport user. Prior to this, I had ridden on maybe 5 buses and had avoided the train as much as possible. Public transport is a breeding ground for germs and bad manners.

But the Underground is something else. Grimy? Yes. Smelly? Often. Hot? Of course. But fascinating and intriguing? Absolutely! There exists an unspoken code of conduct that everyone follows. A subconscious etiquette. And it must be learnt quickly! Thankfully I had some sympathetic relatives who, in my first week, schooled me in the ways of the tube.

5 Steps to the Etiquette of the Underground

  1. Don't make eye contact. There are plenty of other places to look: the tube map, the floor, your reflection, the fascinating strap on your bag. I personally enjoy perusing people's shoes. I also have a secondary public transport goal of not being the first to look away if I catch someone's glance. It's going ok, thanks for asking.
  2. Never talk on your phone. The English are a silently inquisitive race who may implode from frustration if they can only hear one side of a conversation. And if you're not speaking English, you shouldn't have even bothered to board the train.
  3. You're not a true tube traveller if you haven't been almost caught in the doors at least once. It's a right of passage. It brings great joy to a carriage of people if they can either, a) assist in your rescue, or b) laugh at your misfortune. Who doesn't want to put a smile on someone else's face?
  4. Hold onto something when the train starts, or else you'll find yourself thrown into someone's lap. Yes, that did happen. Not to me, thank the Underground gods of providence.
  5. Give up your seat to the less able than yourself. But it's a thin line between consideration and insult. The man with greying hair probably doesn't want a young woman to offer him a chair, just like the young woman doesn't necessarily want the man with greying hair to offer his seat to her in the name of chivalry. You can understand that there's a lot more at stake here than simple kindness.

But forget the rules for a minute. There is nothing quite like sharing a knowing glance with a fellow passenger as you simultaneously roll your eyes at the newbie who closes the air vent at the end of the carriage or at the group of adolescents who haven't grasped hold of a pole as the train leaves the station (see point 4). That stuff can make your day. 

This lucky guy managed to get his whole head stuck in the tube doors!

The Best (worst) Types of Tube Travellers

Before we move on, I need to get something off my chest. Let's raise a glass for the following types of tube travellers:

  • To the fella who stands in front of the air vent to relieve his own heat exhaustion, while blocking the life source of fresh air from the rest of us. Whether I myself have done this is irrelevant.
  • To the middle aged Arsenal fan who thinks that doing a pull-up in the middle of the carriage is 'classy and cool'. News: it's not. 
  • To the school girl who is unable to escape the eternal clicking of her own pen (perfect opportunity to exchange withering glances with fellow passengers though).
  • To the man with no luggage who refused to meet my gaze and give up his chair for the pregnant woman while I had to gather my bundle of possessions and drag myself out of the seat into the corner of the carriage to regroup. Yes, I've definitely forgiven him.
  • To the drunk boy who almost fell in front of a train approaching the platform then swerved just at the last minute. And to his friends who thought that sending him into the Underground in that inebriated state was a good idea.

But every now and again I come across someone with a soul who surprises me out of my tube-induced reveries. 

My Top Tube Memories

The time a woman looked across the carriage at me, met my gaze and complimented my hair. Thank you, for making me smile, and for adding a further element of indecision as to whether I should chop it all off. Spoiler: I chopped it all off.

When I thrust out my elbow to stop an unsuspecting man from falling over as the train left the station. He turned around, surprised, and thanked me, before adding, "You saved me!" I couldn't bring myself to explain what a half-hearted gesture it had been.

And to the pair of passive aggressive travellers throwing shade and sass at each other in equal portions after trying to find room in an over-packed carriage at rush hour. I broke the code and laughed out loud that time. Thank you.

The London Underground is a source of fascinating anecdotes and certainly a highlight of my 6 months abroad. I had heard good things and I had heard hilarious things. Perhaps I had already decided to like the tube even before stepping inside a carriage, but it certainly did not disappoint. Anyone else have some Underground stories to share? Comment below, I beg you. Please also share your tips for tube withdrawals. I have a feeling I'll be needing them.