84 MARCH/APRIL2016 | BETHESDAMAGAZINE.COM
isn’t one of those places.
On the stranded Metro car, people
who probably live in the same or adjoining ZIP codes stared into the distance,
avoiding eye contact with one another.
The longer we waited, the grimmer our
silence. When at last the train moved,
I wanted to cheer in relief. I didn’t.
Nobody made a sound.
Finally rushing off the train, I confided
to a stranger that I feared I would have
lost my composure if we’d been trapped
underground much longer. “Me, too,” he
said. “I think everybody felt that way.”
Hearing him say that made me feel better.
All this time later, I still puzzle at the
silence on that train. So I was intrigued
recently to come across a 2014 academic
article titled “Mistakenly Seeking Soli-
tude.” The authors, University of Chicago
researchers, conducted experiments
on trains and buses, and in taxicabs
to study why strangers in close quar-
ters often don’t speak to one another.
Study participants typically predicted
that commuting in solitude would be
pleasanter than talking with random
strangers. They were wrong. Participants
who spoke with strangers—either of
their own accord or because researchers
asked them to—reported having more
pleasurable commutes. “Humans may
indeed be social animals,” the research-
ers wrote, “but may not always be social
enough for their own well-being.”
The degree to which we’re willing to
talk to strangers is cultural and varies
greatly from place to place. In Bethesda,
unlike places I’ve lived in the Midwest
and South, strangers typically don’t start
BY APRIL WIT T
THERE WASN’T A VACANT seat when
I boarded the Metro in Bethesda early
one morning more than a year ago. I
stood in the aisle watching dozens of
suburbanites crowd in after me, determined to get to work as quickly and
efficiently as possible. There were delays
on the Red Line, and no one was willing
to let this train leave without them. I’d
never seen a Metro train leave Bethesda
this packed. I tried lifting my iPhone to
snap a photo, but my arms were pinned
to my sides in the crush.
Somewhere over the District line the
train stopped between stations. A garbled
announcement over the intercom was
inscrutable. Minutes passed. Too many
minutes passed. People began visibly
sweating. My mind wandered to disaster
movies about being trapped somewhere
awful. My instinct was to crack a joke.
“Anybody seen Das Boot?” I wanted to
say, referring to the German movie in
which doomed sailors are stranded in
a damaged submarine. I didn’t say it. I
didn’t say a word. Nobody did.
It would have been nice to commiserate. I’ve lived in places like Mississippi,
where people chat with strangers all day
long—on buses and trains, in line at the
grocery store, bank or movies. Bethesda
Why don’t more of us talk to strangers?
banter | SUBURBANOLOGY