ShortList is supported by you, our amazing readers. When you click through the links on our site and make a purchase we may earn a commission. Learn more

Danny Wallace: Learning the unwritten rules of the commute

Danny encounters a strange companion

Danny Wallace: Learning the unwritten rules of the commute
11 October 2017

I am not a commuter, but today I am commuting, and I’ll tell you what: it’s been going great.

I’ve nailed every aspect of it.

I could go pro. And then the train inexplicably stopped.

I sort of haven’t minded. It’s nice being stuck in this carriage, part of a commuting community.

A commutery. We’ve all shrugged and huffed at each other about this blinking train inexplicably stopping. One man rolled his eyes at me, and I wanted to say “We’re always going through this kind of thing aren’t we!” then maybe asking for his address and starting a commuter mailing list. But crucially, we have obeyed the golden rule: we have not started talking to one another.

It is a rule I understand, though wish we could break. I’m not saying we should peel off into groups and receive topics to discuss. But is chit chat so bid bad? (This is a phrase I intend to try to popularise.)

I’m sitting opposite an older lady who has two modes: complete stillness and sudden, manic movements. It’s very disturbing.

One second she’ll be sitting quietly, completely Zen. The next she’s pressed up against the window, like someone’s just said they’ve seen Kriss Akabusi. I don’t know why she feels she has to move so quickly. It’s hard to relax around her. It’s like being opposite a lady version of Buckaroo. Next time she closes her eyes, I might see if I can pop a frying pan and a cowboy hat on her upper body.

And then she gets her phone out. I bet she’s going to have a very long and involved conversation in an otherwise silent carriage about how the train has stopped.

But she doesn’t. Instead, she presses a few buttons, and then…


What was that?! Kwalee goosty? Wait… that sounds Italian! The woman has her eyes shut – and now more loud Italian blasts out of her phone.


What is happening? Does she realise? She mustn’t realise! But she does realise, doesn’t she? Because this woman is doing the unthinkable. She is learning Italian, and that is fine, but she is learning Italian out loud on her phone. This is not fine. This is a shared space. And we are a silent commutery. You cannot steal the air like this.


This is nothing but the posh equivalent of someone playing Ibiza Anthems: Vol 4 out of their Samsung on a bus. Yet because this woman is learning Italian she thinks it’s fine. She is bettering herself, even if she is worsening us. And there are scowls now. But they can’t catch her eye, because her eyes are still closed. So they catch mine, like somehow I’m to blame for turning her phone all foreign.


It’s not my fault! I’m just sitting opposite her! There cannot be one person within earshot who is not repeating random phrases out loud in their heads. We are all now learning romantic Italian whether we want to or not.

But you and I both know being stuck on a train is no time for romance. It’s a time for action.

A man behind us has already cleared his throat, so he’s done his bit. But it’s my turn. Carriage etiquette dictates it falls to the person closest to do something on behalf of the commutery.

Maybe I’ll do a big sigh, because making a noise will remind the woman that there are other people here. Maybe I’ll start singing that Joe Dolce song. Or get my phone out and start blasting Ibiza Anthems: Vol 4. There are too many options.

So I decide I will simply draw attention to what she is doing.

And I lean forward a little, and I say “Are you learning Italian?” and she opens her eyes, shocked.

Suddenly the train jolts forward. We’re on the move!

I sit back in my seat. I have made my stand, because the woman immediately taps her phone and stops the lesson. VICTORY!

But “I am!” she says, leaning forward so quickly I’m worried she’s trying to headbutt me. “I’m actually off to Vicenza at the end of the month to see my daughter!”

Oh no. I have started a conversation. I have broken the golden rule. And as the woman begins a long monologue that takes in every Italian city she has ever been to, what her daughter is studying and what she used to study, it is all I can do not to shout “Look! Kriss Akabusi!” in hope of distracting her long enough for me to squeeze out of a window. For I have committed the cardinal sin of the commuter, and now all must listen in silence.

I catch a man’s eye. He both pities and resents me. As the woman’s monologue begins to peter out, it is clear I am to be ostracised from the commuter community. They are going to freeze me out. I think they might already have started, it’s hard to tell.

Well, you know what? In for a penny, in for a Euro…

“And how long have you been learning Italian?” I ask.

Because is a little chit chat so bid bad?

(Image: Pexels)