Watching people eat on trains? Okay. Hearing loud techno on trains? Okay. Overhearing someone’s mobile conversation? Please, anything but that.
On a recent train trip to Schiphol airport I was seated within earshot of an American traveller who’d forgotten his laptop at his hotel in Amsterdam. I know this because he was using his mobile phone to discuss, in loud breathless tones, the logistics of how it would be returned to him. He went through an astonishing amount of detail in the conversation. There was the arranged time for a courier to collect the laptop, how it would be labelled and packaged, and most importantly, what would happen on the off chance that someone was not at reception when the courier arrived. I could tell he was panicked from the way his requests almost clung to the person on the other side, like this call was his last and only link with his Macbook.
I’ve long since made my peace with train etiquette in Holland. For one, the Dutch are completely at ease, wolfing down a 3-course meal directly in front of you on a train. Once I watched a woman dismantle an entire club sandwich, removing the onion and then flinging it with sweet abandon into the open rubbish bin next to our co-joined seats. Some trains include “silent” carriages – ones which don’t allow any music to be played or mobile calls. But most times you’ll find yourself in the “anything goes” carriage, which means you run the full gauntlet of techno, house or my favourite, Dutch hip hop. It helps to close your eyes when you’re on the train. The sociologist Erving Goffman’s might have called this the extreme version of “civil inattentiveness.” But these are extreme times. And our new companion species, isn’t furry and doesn’t bark. Mobiles are lively critters, going everywhere we do.
Once I watched a woman dismantle an entire club sandwich, removing the onion and then flinging it with sweet abandon into the open rubbish bin next to our co-joined seats.
While music and food shenanigans are par for the course in commuting terms, it seems that we reserve a special tension for conversations we have to endure in shared space these days. The mobile phone has become a powerful actor in the erosion of the boundary line between our notions of private and public. This has been the subject for academic debate for over 10 years. What new meanings are created by having intimate conversations in public? What does this means for our defence of space? How does it shape concepts of individualism and the collective? Turning to new age framings: what does this mean for our sense of presence and being mindful?
Getting back to the guy who forgot his laptop, I wondered what exactly bothered me about overhearing his conversation. I narrowed it down to three options, not mutually exclusive. 1.) I was trapped into hearing his conversation, thanks to my proximity and his booming voice. So it disenfranchised me of any choice, and I had no way of defending my personal space. 2.) The conversation was one sided. In other instances, like when I overhear a conversation between two people chatting in the seat behind me in real life, it somehow feels more incidental and appropriate, it kind of melts into the background. But when someone is having a mobile conversation, it’s annoyingly lop-sided and somehow becomes intrusive.
And our new companion species, isn’t furry and doesn’t bark. Mobiles are lively critters, going everywhere we do.
It’s not a new thought that our bodies aren’t just solitary insulated items that merrily trot along in life. We exist as porous bodies, constantly exchanging information with other bodies (human and non-human). Which leads me to my most plausible explanation of the three. Like Mr America, I also became anxious listening to this conversation, it affected me. I had planned to decompress a little on the trip to Schiphol, instead now I was part of a someone else’s drama. More than that, the conversation was achingly banal. Being in inescapable earshot of this conversation reminded me of a part of life I’d much prefer not to think about. That dimension that has nothing to do with love, or art or fantasy or intrigue. It just reminded me of the flat quotidian side of life that is just doggedly banal.