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The unwritten rules of travel etiquette

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David Cornish
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Some rules are written down.

Rules like "No heavy petting in the pool", "No smoking" and "Don't murder people". Sensible rules. Rules you can point to when someone breaks them, to state "Don't pretend you didn't know - we wrote it down and everything". 

Some rules are not written down - hence the expression, "unwritten rules". Rules essential to the very fabric of social life. Rules we assume are so obvious that they don't need to be written down. 

But not everyone appears to know of all these rules, particularly in that most taxing of spheres; public transport. Some people, for unknown reasons (crap parenting, probably), just don't know how to behave. So by way of public service, we decided to write these rules down.

Share them. Spread the word. Make the world a better, more ordered place. 

Respect your neighbour's right to an arm rest

Everyone gets one. Everyone. 

You know the three central seats in the middle of the plane? If you're on the aisle, you've automatically got one. It's yours. Claim it, cherish it, cling to it like it's your only child. 

Just don't go elbowing your way to the central one as well. Don't you dare.

If that poor sod in the central seat finds themselves sitting next to two equally selfish elbow spreaders, they're destined to spend the flight contorted into an escapologists pose. You'll cripple them for life. Probably.  

Same goes for the coach, bus or tube; if you're in a scenario where one arm rest is clearly your arm rest, then take it. Only encroach on the second arm rest if you notice it's going free. Don't assume you can challenge for both. Don't make it your journey's Gaza Strip. 

Do not play music through headphones at antisocial levels

Fleetwood Mac's Rumours. David Bowie's Hunky Dory. ABBA's greatest hits. It doesn't matter how banging you think your music choice is, kill it before the rest of the commute kills you.

There's a simple rule of thumb for determining if it's too loud: if we can hear your music over the music that our headphones are playing, then you need to turn it down. Take your headphones off, jam them over your knee and see if you can hear anything. You can? Then turn it down. Earphones? Then stick your thumbs over them. 

Ever wondered how easy it is to strangle someone with their headphone cable? We don't want to find out either...

Take your bag off the seat

You know the score: the bus/train/tube is packed, bodies crushing the aisles, yet some tit brazenly sits - eyes glued to the window - with their bag taking up the seat next to them. People could be dying inches from their seat and they wouldn't bat an eyelid. They just like their personal space. They care about luggage more than people. 

We don't care what you've got in your bag. It could contain a lifetime's supply of Marmite. Four puppies. An Xbox. Just search through your soul for a shred of human empathy and stick it on your lap. 

Do not pinch someone else's socket

You've got four per cent battery left, and a two hour train into deepest darkest Devon. You didn't book a seat with a socket outlet, but you notice that the seat behind does have one available.

There are two courses of action:

  • Draw on every fibre of civility and decorum in your person, turn to the person in the seat behind you and request, "Might I plug my phone charger into your socket?"
  • Reach your hand through the small gap between your seat and the carriage wall, and fumble your charger into their socket 

Never, ever consider the latter. You monster. 

No heavy petting

No, we don't understand the etymology of the term 'heavy petting' either. Makes us worry what people used to do to cats. 

But we do understand that no one wants to watch you complete the end of your date with an impassioned fondle and snog as we approach your stop, only to watch one of you awkwardly disentangle yourself and head for the doors, leaving the bereft partner to calm themselves down in front of the rest of the carriage. Any and all eye contact with this person makes it feel like you've been sucked into their head, filled with NSFW thoughts we'd rather not entertain in our own minds.

Holding hands is cute. An affectionate kiss goodbye maintains our faith in relationships. But reaching third base? Leave off. 

Consider your sneeze

No, we're not suggesting you partake in months of extensive sinus control techniques in order to learn how to suppress your body's ability to sneeze. 

But when the time arrives that you do need to sneeze in the confines of public transport, don't be a dick about it. Don't sneeze freely into the air around you, showering everyone in a cloud of mucous and spittle. Don't sneeze into your hands, wipe them on the back of your jeans and then return your moist palm to grip the same pole everyone else is going to have to use for the rest of the day. 

Got a cold? Get some tissues. And tell your parents they failed to make you into a proper adult. 

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Don't hog the door

Using public transport can make some people inexplicably anxious. The proximity with other humans, using a route they may have never travelled before, fills their mind with needless fears: "What if I can't get off when it's my stop?" "What if I don't realise it's my stop?" "What if I'm trapped on this thing for the rest of my life? Will they put my corpse with lost and found?"

Chill out. You're going to be okay.

What's not okay is for you to preemptively rise from your chair in a full bus/tube and expect everyone to move out of the way so you can shuffle to the door. That's not how it works. It's physics. When there's no free space available for everyone to move into, there's no way they can get out of your way so you can line yourself up with the door to make your exit. 

The same goes for anyone who refuses to move away from the door for fear of losing a 0.7 second head start when they need to leave. "Oh no, this is my spot, I'll stay here even if it means you can't get off."

Shift out of the way. Prat.

Don't use the bus/train/carriage as a changing room

Public transport. It's public. Clue's in the name. Thus, if you're finding yourself excessively moist in the under arm region and you're tempted to give yourself a squirt of some deodorant - don't. 

Cheers for considering the rest of the us in assessing your sweaty state - you're right mate, you do smell like something that's flopped out of a rugby scrum - but the thing about your sweat is that it won't linger. When you leave, your smell will leave (unless you've been rubbing your pits all over the seats). If you unleash a blast of £2.50 'Aqua Haze' spray, that's going to hang like a cloud for the rest of the journey.

Wait until you've got off, then carry out your ablutions. 

Go easy on the seat recline

We love a good seat recline as much as the next weary traveller. We understand the joy of finding just the right angle to lull you into a relaxed slumber. 

But there's a certain diplomacy to the act of the seat recline, an act of decency that needs to be observed when encroaching into another flyer's personal space. When we've been airborne for less than three minutes, it's always appreciated if you gently lower your way to your preferred seating angle - inch by inch if necessary. It's the only chivalrous way of behaving.

Don't be that guy who hits the seat release and thrusts back with all the eagerness of an Apollo rocket. Everyone hates that guy.

Don't use public transport like a rest room

Things you can't do in the confined space of public transport:

  • Farting
  • Repeated sniffing
  • Dredging up a lump of phlegm at the back of your throat 
  • Picking your nose
  • Clipping your finger nails
  • Squeezing spots
  • Plucking anything out of your body with tweezers 

We've seen each of these happen. We wish we hadn't. 

The consumption of smelly food is prohibited 

"But the Egg McMuffin Sandwich it smells delicious!"

You're right, it does. As does KFC, Chinese takeaway, the majority of kebabs - pretty much any food that comes wrapped in paper smells fantastic.

However, the moment you remove these items from the context of a park bench or plastic topped table and attempt to consume them in the confines of public transport, these smells are no longer delicious. They are odious bodies of disgust. Don't travel with them. Bring an apple. 

Ditch your phone conversation

Whatsapp sends and receives some 42 billion messages every single day. 

When you're in the closed confines of a mode of public transport, best add to this vast sum of messages rather than take that call, yeah?

Don't bring your school trip to play rush hour

This one will stab at the sensibilities of London commuters like a splinter under a finger nail: You've just slogged your way through nine hours of office hell and you're two tube lines away from the warm embrace of your sofa and a curry. Finding your route blocked by 26 zealous Spanish students and one terrified teacher trying to work out how to switch to the Northern Line is like a giant middle finger from the gods of the commuter universe. 

It's 18:03. You've just brought the equivalent of a flock of sheep to the middle of the M25. Just go and sit in a McDonald's for the next hour and try again. 

Never watch media without headphones

Parents setting up their kids with eight episodes of Fireman Sam on their iPad. Millennials settling down for an hour-long train ride with nothing but YouTube and a reckless disregard for the general public. Couples settling down for that episode of Poldark they've downloaded from iPlayer. 

It's not okay guys. Why would it be? We wouldn't come a sit in the corner of your living room and fill out a crossword when you're doing this at home, so don't bring your sofa experience to our commute. 

(Images: iStock)

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David Cornish

Shortlist.com’s esteemed Tech Editor. David has a keen interest in video games, Star Wars and stuff that runs on batteries.

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