Science of Cities

Stranger Danger: Can We Make New Friends on the Subway?

Can city-dwellers overcome their hesitation to talk to strangers on public transit, and might technology help (not hinder) that friendliness?

Transit riders use their phones at the Union Square subway station in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

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Sharing personal space with strangers is an unavoidable part of commuting by public transit. And ignoring the passengers around us is a proud and longstanding tradition for American city-dwellers.

But social scientists have begun to investigate whether this is a wasted opportunity —whether we would enjoy interacting with our fellow commuters more than we think — and at least one researcher is devising a technology to help us do so. Collectively, this work suggests that we should consider at least an occasional chat with a random stranger, and that technology, rather than hindering such connections, may be able to facilitate them.

Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago, and doctoral student Juliana Schroeder tested the hypothesis in Chicago. For one experiment, subjects were asked to either interact with a stranger on the subway or to keep to themselves. Most subjects predicted they would find conversing with a stranger less pleasant than solitary activity, but most of them were wrong. On average, those who talked with someone had a more positive experience than those who sat in solitude.

It’s become commonplace to blame technology for increasingly asocial behavior in public, but current subway etiquette long predates our personal gadgets. A famous 1978 study by the psychologist Stanley Milgram put it this way: “The requirements of appropriate social behavior on the subway are, on the face of it, simple … Even though riders are often squeezed into very close proximity, they are rarely observed to converse.” And this photo, which recently made the rounds on Twitter, offers vivid if anecdotal evidence that commuting “alone together” is hardly new.

But if the studies are accurate, we’ve been making a mistake all this time. So what if technology could actually be enlisted to catalyze connections with the strangers around us? An app called Train Roulette, so far only available in Australia, aims to do just that.

Historically, the Internet has connected people who had common interests but were separated by geography. Train Roulette inverts that function: It connects people who may not have anything in common, but are in the same place.

“People use technologies mainly to escape that environment inside the train,” said app designer Tiago Dias Camacho, a doctoral candidate in the Urban Informatics Research Lab at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane. “Our idea was maybe we can reverse that. Maybe we can use technology to connect the people who are already there.”

Only a couple of dozen Australians have downloaded the new app so far, but Dias Camacho is preparing to launch a pilot project so he can test the product with a critical mass of users.

Its use is restricted to the train; it works by “geofencing,” a technique in which the location information from a mobile device is tested to see if it is within a designated area. Users would know that they were chatting with someone nearby, but would have discretion over whether to disclose their identity. Presumably, after making the initial connection through the app, some users would choose to engage face-to-face.

In a way, Train Roulette seems like something out of a parody of modern life: It’s both a symptom of our absorption in technology and a cure. Is an app really necessary to meet someone who’s sitting three feet away? Dias Camacho acknowledges that it depends on the cultural context. He recalls that a Brazilian friend told him, “In Brazil you wouldn’t need anything like that, because the moment you went on the bus you would be talking with everyone.”

In less open, more reticent cultures — or cultures disproportionately dependent on phones — perhaps Train Roulette can play more of a role.

“Riding the train is probably not the most exciting thing that you can think of,” says Dias Camacho, who sees his app as “adding that kind of spice to the journey.”

There are, of course, reasons we keep to ourselves. As Stanley Milgram observed in a 1970 paper called “The Experience of Living in Cities,” “[t]hese norms develop because everyone realizes that, in situations of high population density, people cannot implicate themselves in each others’ affairs, for to do so would create conditions of continual distraction which would frustrate purposeful action.” In the social science experiments, people were asked to have just one conversation. It makes sense that an unusual and agreeable social experience would make people feel warm and fuzzy. That doesn’t mean we should make a new acquaintance on every trip.

But it does imply that we might benefit from displaying a little additional friendliness. An app such as Train Roulette could help, if necessary. But, as the subjects in Epley’s study demonstrated, it’s also possible — and rewarding — to put down your phone, smile at the passenger next to you, and enthuse about the weather.

The Science of Cities column is made possible with the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow was Next City’s Science of Cities columnist in 2014. She has also written for the New York Times, Slate and Dissent, among other publications.

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Tags: public transportationchicagosubways

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