In the New York City subway, rules and regulations are communicated everywhere – on flashing marquees, with arrows, and over loud speakers. The MTA loves to remind its travelers of that “if you see something, say something” and to “mind the gap”. While the city has gone out of its way to indoctrinate New Yorkers with principles for public safety, they have allowed other human interactions to work themselves out naturally.
Have you ever traveled during morning rush hour and witnessed a car without a single conversation? Ever seen someone “Shhh” a friend when a story gets too lively, loud, or irreverent on a packed train? Even young children, who on the street or on the train platform may be singing energetically, are most often seen in the car quietly looking out the window and fidgeting with a toy or their own jacket. New York Magazine has documented the more obvious unspoken rules of subway etiquette, but few addressed the phenomenon of self-imposed quiet inside train cars. In a city where anonymity allows for loud personal phone conversations in public places and other behavior otherwise conserved for “crazies,” why has the subway car become a space where New Yorkers, at least, seem to actually care that other people may not want to hear what they have to say?
In Tokyo, subway car noise-level is something that the city did choose to address head on in a public service campaign. However, unlike in Japan where the dominant reasoning for quiet is driven by prioritizing the experience of the other passengers, it would seem New Yorkers are driven by individualistic self-preservation. ￼
New York City's geographic space is already limited by rivers and rent prices making personal space a highly valued and protected commodity. For many, a stranger's eye contact, close proximity, or bodily contact become an unwanted breech of that boundary and can be interpreted as a capital offense. What one can hear is included in this concept of personal space— the EPA even outlines the adverse effects of noise pollution. Therefore, as a NYC commuter is confined to the train car and the density increases, so too does the threat of the tension between one person's conversation impinging on another's highly guarded personal space. In order to avoid any potential conflict due to breaching this boundary, New Yorkers have learned from a young age or quickly after they arrive to quietly pass the time.
This method of self-imposed quietude has been functional for New Yorkers for years. However, with increasing cell phone service availability in various subway stations, the quiet of the morning commute may be in danger. Will the tensions created between high density and personal space be enough to keep subway cars quiet on its own? Or are we on the brink of a whole new subway experience? Something tells us it'll figure itself out. Peer pressure is a powerful thing.
Written By Elena Perez