Body Language: Three Public Transit Stories

If you drive everywhere and never take public transit (or if you don’t dare take it) you miss out on some extraordinary experiences. Here are three of mine:

A few years ago I was on a noisy and crowded streetcar in Toronto during rush hour. Two girls, probably in their early twenties, got on, and took two of the last seats on the streetcar, several rows apart, but within eyeshot of each other. Then, as the streetcar clanged into motion, they began talking with each other — using only sign language. The conversation was very animated, and although the other passengers could not understand what they were saying they became entranced with this exchange, What was most remarkable was the facial and body language of the two girls, which was probably completely unnecessary to the conversation, but was nevertheless quite pronounced. Does the absence of hearing tend to accentuate the use of visual clues like facial and body language, I wondered. Within a few minutes you could see the faces of other passengers responding to these visual clues — it was as if at some subliminal level they were ‘remembering’ how to interpret another’s meaning without language. Is this still encoded in our DNA? At one point I noticed two passengers blushing and showing signs of embarrassment — a second before the two girls broke into laughter and the one who had been ‘speaking’ made a facial gesture indicating that whatever she had been describing had been a very embarrassing event for her. How much more, I wondered, could we really begin to understand each other if we were not so constrained in our focus of attention on the narrow bandwidth of words? As I thought this, one of the girls got off the streetcar, which was caught at a red light. But the girls’ conversation never let up for a moment. It continued unabated out the window across the rush-hour din, until the girl who had alighted had vanished from sight.

Two years ago I was in the Paris MÈtro, the subway system there, at about six p.m. making my way to a dinner rendezvous with some business associates. The subway was full of office workers, most of whom probably eked out a living in that terribly expensive city, but, as always, they were stunning — immaculately and stylishly dressed, nothing rumpled or out of place despite the heat in the crowded car. I have a passable knowledge of French and was looking forward to doing a bit of eavesdropping (the euphemism now is ‘cultural anthropology’) to discover what young French men and women talk about at the end of the workday. To my consternation I heard few conversations to listen in on — it was noisy and I guess people were tired after a long day. But then I realized the real communication was not vocalized. Almost everyone in the car was ‘checking out’ everyone else, and, if you were attentive, telling you precisely what they thought. The French seem to have raised this to a high art form — it is extremely discreet and subtle, and not at all impolite. The women seem to check out other women from the bottom up: Shoes first, legs next, clothing and accessories after that, and hair and face last, though a bit more thoroughly, as they linger and acknowledge infinitesimally brief eye contact. But in that instant there seems to be either a quiet ‘nod’ of approval (though if you aren’t paying close attention you’d miss it). Extending that eye-contact by a tiny amount would seem to convey something stronger, “I like what I see”, short of an invitation (there’s a whole additional series of unspoken cues, I later learned, involved in making or replying to an invitation, and they’re not appropriate to a place like the subway) but still ego-warming. And there’s a slightly faster averting of the eyes to convey — distress, not dislike or put-down for your sad appearance, but more like embarrassment on your behalf that you just aren’t quite able to pull it off. The French women seem to check out men in the opposite sequence, from top to bottom, with the hair and face first, and the shoes being the piËce de rÈsistance: If she’s embarrassed for you, she won’t even move back to your face (her dismay would perhaps be too obvious, and humiliating for you), so she moves her gaze along, perhaps to the shoes of the woman standing beside you. If she likes what she sees, she will return to your face and quietly tell you so, with a movement of the eyes and mouth that to the uninitiated is almost imperceptible but to those who know, I suspect, speaks volumes. It’s all in the angle of her head when she looks at you, and the slight extension of the lips. Some French men seemed to check out everyone top-to-bottom, only returning to the faces they liked, while others (perhaps the majority) started at the breasts and the hips of women first, followed the line down and checked the face and hair almost as an afterthought. They were slightly less subtle than the women — the gaze, everywhere, lasted a fraction longer, and the look of approval was slightly more pronounced, though never obvious. This, after all, is only a MÈtro car, and this is how the French convey important information to people they will never meet, delightfully, and without saying a word.

My third story took place on a Toronto transit bus about a decade ago. The bus was packed, and I was standing in front of a long sideways bench. A man offered his seat there, beside a woman holding a very young child, to a young woman dressed to the nines in Goth apparel — all in black, with pierced nose and belly-button, spiked hair, a tattoo of a bird on the side of her face, heavy eye makeup and a lot of silver jewelery. Suddenly, the young child raised his hand, pointed at the Goth girl, began laughing, and said “Look Mommy, clown!” All of us were taken aback by this remark, and the mother covered the child’s mouth and went to apologize, but to our delight the girl waved it off and began making silly faces at the child, who began laughing with that complete lack of reserve and embarrassment that only a child can pull off, shrieking hysterically and doubling over to the point many of the other passengers nearby started to laugh too. Now the Goth had an audience, and she added embellishments to the act — she used her spiked hair as a ‘handle’ to turn her head, and then when she ‘let it go’ she shook it furiously back and forth. When she pulled the ring on her belly-button she would stick out her tongue and cross her eyes. By now half the bus was in hysterics, and the child was laughing so hard his mother had to hold on to keep him from falling off her lap. Then the young lady rose, made a silly walk to the rear door, and announced “Sorry folks, show’s over, this is my stop”. The passengers broke into applause, and with a parting bow the young lady turned and stepped off the bus.

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6 Responses to Body Language: Three Public Transit Stories

  1. Rob Paterson says:

    Great Post – my fave was a few months in TO. I was on a Street car on the St Clair line. As every rider jopined the Indian driver looked them in the ey and said good morning – not the casual gretting but the real thing. As we stopped at the Subawy – he rose to his feet and wished us all a great day. It is hard to decribe the atmosphere on the car – it was so upbeat and buoyant as we passed him on teh way pout every passenger made ey contact and wishes him a great day as well. We all floated off to start our day completely uplifted by a pleasantary that had ben taken to an authentic level.My Paris story – Robin and I have taken Hope our 15 year old daughter and a friend to Paris. We went to a cafe with the two girls in little black dresses – you know the type that show everything. They entered to “virtual cheers” from all in the cafe – men and women – no one said a thing but the eyeballs all clicked and they all scored a 10. A lot said without words.I think that we take words far too seriously. Dave you I am sure can communicate quite effectively with your dog. She will be able to tell you a lot through her body language. So surely with us. maybe this is why when i get drunk with a group who do not speak english we start to understand each other. A lot more comes over via the body.last point – is not smell a great communicator – I seem to recall that it is the main driver of why women find a man attractive or not. Not his aftershave but his personal smell. Maybe there is a cse for leaving the after shave behind?

  2. brad says:

    Nice stuff! My son (rides bus & train 5 days per week) has told me many funny stories, like somebody talking to a bag of groceries, etc. Interesting stuff, given the fact that I’m a Transit (bus) mechanic, and rarely see any of my end-user customers. I’ll pass this along to some others. Often, I stare at the interior of an empty bus, wondering about what conversations have taken place there, and observations about other things. Imagine, the horsepower on tap if one could harness all the conversations in a day’s time on a single bus/train car! Were I a writer, there is untold millions of things upon which to draw. Thanks for the 3 articles!

  3. David Fono says:

    Geez, most of my stories involving the TTC involve the uglier side of human nature. There’s a lot of anger and frustration at the Spadina stop at rush hour when people are trying to cram themselves into the streetcar, and we can’t leave because someone is standing on the rear doors or whatever. And you know what really gets me? When someone at a stop can’t get on because the streetcar is “full,” but in reality there’s just some people at the front who are too lazy/inconsiderate to move back. And the “you can look anywhere but you can’t look at each others” protocol of public transit in Toronto is a constant drain on my humanity.

  4. Indigo says:

    Great stories all. There is no public transit where I now live but I relied upon it whenever I lived in San Francisco & New York. I can’t say I ever saw anything heartwarming or fascinating, but I do recall a very telling incident for how community can operate to prevent tragedy.I recall one time in SF there was a white man in his mid-fifties harrassing a teenage black boy about how the boy had spoken to a teenage girl. He seemed to take the stance that he was chastising the boy in a fatherly way, but really he was putting the boy down and acting quite holier than thou under the guise of offering helpful instruction in manners.The teenager got increasingly hostile at the man’s unceasing tirade of criticism. Finally the teenager got up and was standing over the man, who just wouldn’t shut up. The teenager began yelling at the man to stop talking to him like that. The bus driver radioed for the police. We all began thinking a fight was imminent. The boy would be hauled off the bus by the police and perhaps take the first step in his life within “the system” of police enforcement.Just as we all began to cringe and some even got up to get off the bus, seemingly before their stops, a middle aged black woman got up and went over to the boy. She stood a few feet away from him and began speaking to him as if she was an aunt of his. She asked, “aren’t you Mary’s boy?” He said he was. She talked to him about how the man didn’t have good sense and asked the boy to please come with her and take her empty seat. She kept talking to him in a very soothing, loving tone until the bus stopped. The boy then got off as three police cars pulled up to meet the bus. There was no crime and so the boy was allowed to go free.We all breathed a sigh of relief. And I took a note I will never forget on what it means to live within connection in a city of any size.

  5. lavonne says:

    Re: sign language and body/face language — I took a sign language class once and was surprised to learn that facial expressions are a very important part of it. They provide context for the hand gestures, some of which can have more than one meaning. That’s why those girls were so animated. I wish I could have been on that bus!

  6. Dave, excellent storytelling – I was absorbed and interested, amused and moved, and your points stand out in my mind as a result. I know you’re trying to do more of that through stories, and this is good stuff.

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