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UK public transport rolls out ‘chat day’

The Guardian 13 June 2019

There will be ‘chat carriages’ on Friday as part of BBC scheme to get strangers talking

Buses, coaches, trams and trains will be a bit chattier than usual on Friday as a day-long experiment to encourage travellers to talk to strangers is rolled out on Britain’s transport network.

Commuters on West Coast Virgin trains will find every coach C is designated a “chat carriage”, while bus company Arriva is placing “conversation starter” cards on vehicles servicing their UK network.

Transport for London, Greater Anglia and the Go Ahead Group are also all taking part, with posters at three London tube stations encouraging people to talk to staff. Counsellors trained by the charity Relate will ply London buses as part of an initiative with Greener Journeys, encouraging passengers to open up.

National Express said it would invite people to take part in “some stimulating activities” on Birmingham’s number 11 route, the longest urban bus route in Europe.

The series of initiatives, orchestrated by a BBC team focused on solutions journalism, is designed to combat two of the most toxic issues of the age: polarisation and isolation.

Emily Kasriel, a BBC editor behind the project, said the aim was “to encourage people who are up for it to get out of their comfort zone and emerge from their screens to interact with the adult sitting next to them”.

“Many people are reluctant to talk to strangers, but perhaps someone is battling loneliness and an exchange could provide a meaningful moment that changes their day,” said Kasriel, the head of the BBC’s Crossing Divides season, which seeks to combat antagonism through conversation.

“Everyone has an interesting story to tell. These chance encounters can provoke a new way of looking at the world, and an opportunity to understand someone else’s story.”

Though typical commuter behaviour these days might involve inserting earbuds and avoiding all and any interaction with fellow travellers, research indicates that those who do open up to strangers tend to feel happier as a result.

In a 2014 study led by Nicholas Epley at the University of Chicago, the authors wrote: “Connecting with others increases happiness, but strangers in close proximity routinely ignore each other.”

In a blogpost for the BBC, Epley wrote that one reason why a sudden conversation might improve a day is that “the experience of talking with others and hearing a stranger’s voice makes us realise they have a rich inner life of thoughts, feelings, emotions, and experiences, just like us”.

He added: “These brief connections with strangers are not likely to turn a life of misery into one of bliss. However, they can change unpleasant moments – like the grind of a daily commute – into something more pleasant.”

Not everyone agrees. Last month, Uber started trialling a “quiet driver” mode to prevent drivers from striking up conversations on journeys.

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