Underground Etiquette: Public Transit Rules Around the World

Please mind the (cultural) gap between the train and the platform.
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Underground Etiquette: Public Transit Rules Around the World

Navigating a foreign city is hard enough. You’ve got routes to plan, trains to catch, sights to see. Figuring out how to get to your destination in a new land is a feat alone. But to fit in like a local, you can’t ignore the importance of your behavior on the public transportation that gets you there. Of course, there are some transit rules you should follow anywhere you go. Don’t block the doorways. Stand to one side of the escalator in the station. Cede your seat to those who struggle standing.

But though there are many universal norms, some nuances of public transportation behavior are distinct, and upsetting the cultural status quo can make for a bumpy ride. Knowing the ins and outs of transit etiquette around the globe can keep you out of awkward situations and make for smoother sailing.

Enough With All That Racket

Americans might be known for being transit chatterboxes, but they’re not the only ones. Many Italians consider it perfectly normal to verbalize at full volume, and Canadians don’t mind hearing a cell phone or an in-person conversation as long as it’s not too disruptive.

A conversation with a friend on a loud subway car might seem commonplace in a place like New York, but in some cities, it’s a major misstep to forget that other riders relish silence. A survey by Paris’ transport authority revealed that talking too loud in train cars was the most frequent and egregious offense cited by Parisian Metro riders. In Japan, where silence can be subconsciously — and strictly — enforced, most phones have a “manner mode” option, which switches a phone to vibrate and turns off ringtones to avoid disturbing other passengers.

To Chow Down or Light Up, Get Off

Perhaps unsurprisingly, consuming food or drink on the metro is often a cultural taboo (water is often the only exception). The act is viewed with distaste on the subte in Buenos Aires and on the trains in Sweden, where passengers turn up their noses at smelly, messy or noisy grub. And in Austria, eating any type of food on subway cars was just recently banned. But though you’ll want to avoid breaking bread on the train in a whole host of world cities, most Londoners treat eating on the Tube as an anything-goes affair.

Compared to eating, smoking in most public transit systems is just as undesirable, if not worse; it’s prohibited nearly everywhere from Washington, D.C. to Kuala Lumpur to Colombia. Even in Athens, where smoking is allowed almost everywhere in public, it’s a no-go on the train.

A Little Wiggle Room

Transit behavior norms, however strict or loose, can have a lot to do with how distinct cultures define personal space. In train cars filled with people in Rome or buses in Bogotá, for example, there’ll likely be no lack of skin-to-skin contact — and, in some cases, unwelcome and unsolicited touching.

For busy commuters without a minute to spare, body contact is an inevitable part of the journey. In Paris, you’ll find yourself snug up against other riders at the busiest times of day, and crowded Costa Rican buses are almost brimming with people squished together in a collective mass. In Fiji and Samoa, you could be encouraged to sit on a stranger’s lap on a bus with no more room. Japan, which hosts most of the world’s busiest train stations, even has train pushers who pack passengers like sardines at peak hours.

But in the Scandinavian countries and eastern Europe, where people tend to value personal space heavily, you’re less likely to find yourself in such close quarters with your fellow riders unless it’s an absolute necessity.

Follow Your Instinct

You won’t always know if you’re breaking social norms in a new place. Most people around the world won’t confront you for a minor mistake (though a passenger in Berlin or Moscow, for example, might have no issue calling you out for a faux pas). Common sense helps, but there are always some culture-specific peculiarities you can’t plan for, like how you should give a monk your seat in Thailand or leave behind your newspaper as a courtesy on the Tube in London.

When unsure, a good rule of thumb is that if you’d be disturbed by it, it’s probably not polite to do it to others. And observing other passengers is a surefire way to know how to act appropriately when you feel stuck on the tracks.

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