Another day, another attempt to make Londoners less miserable. As if flashmobs on the concourse and mariachi bands assaulting your eardrums on the District line weren't enough, now a new "Tube Chat" badge hopes to encourage the capital's weary travellers to do what we're always told we shouldn't: talk on the Tube.
Improving the experience of travelling on the London Tube network has long been an obsession. Seats now tell us they're prioritised, pregnant women are encouraged to wear "Baby on Board" badges to get one of these seats, signs tell us not to play music too loudly or eat smelly food, and a new trial, again with a badge, hops to encourage us to stand for passengers whose disability may not be "obvious". These are all good, solid rules created in an effort to make what is essentially a necessary evil as pleasant and harmonious as possible.
But a badge that asks us to talk to one another? Is this what we've been crying out for? Is this little piece of tin, with "Tube Chat?" perched atop a London Underground roundel really going to turn your carriage into the excitable chorus line it always wanted to be?
We live in increasingly lonely times. Sure, we're more connected than ever, liking posts on Instagram and tweeting our hot takes on today's news – but when it comes to actual human interaction, many of us are lacking.
A Mental Health Foundation survey found recently that one in ten Brits feels lonely, but is a badge and a chat with a random stranger going to help? There are often days for the lonely where a little conversation can make all the difference – a few words with a friendly shop assistant, or a chat with a neighbour – but will wearing a badge to say you crave this company send the right message? Because here's the thing: while we may want to talk more, do we actually want to talk about anything? Like, anything at all?
Perhaps we imagine cheerful chats about the weather or house prices; maybe we envisage swapping pictures of children or dogs or, of course, what you had for lunch last weekend. The problem is your badge is open to everyone; there will be no filter. And once you've invited that bloke with beer breath who has some scintillating views on Brexit and thinks Page 3 should be brought back, or the guy with dirt under his fingernails who tells you he likes to brush dolls' hair and wow aren't you pretty, can you, at some point, say, "Actually, this isn't the kind of chat I had in mind"? Would you be confident of a good, calm reaction?
So, rooted to the spot by your own ridiculous British reserve, you nod and smile, before getting off at the next stop, delaying your journey home. Or, you stand up to them and cause a full-scale row in your carriage, get dismissed as frigid or confrontational by your dreary aggressor and, more than likely, get filmed by a fellow passenger who posts it on YouTube with the caption "lol #TubeRage u gotta see this".
As with most things like this, there's a bigger picture: namely, everyone else in your carriage's happiness. So you're thrilled to chew the fat, bellowing over the rickety, clanging churn of the train's wheels through centuries-old tunnels, leaning in and screaming ""What's that? Say that again, mate", but what about everyone else? They're wearing no badge, they don't want to talk, they've jammed their headphones as far into the ear canal as it will go, stared down in bitter concentration at their John le Carré, only for their reverie to be shattered by two strangers going at it, at Glastobury-level decibels, talking about Bake Off.
The Tube has its own antisocial, obnoxious song to sing, and our role in the melody is to sit in as much silence as we can muster until our part of the journey is over. We're respecting each other's space, leaving everyone alone with their thoughts. This unspoken rule about not speaking keeps us safe, because usually when there's noise between passengers on the Tube, it means trouble.
It means someone is getting hassled, or lairy, or is too drunk, and we can deal with that situation. Have you noticed how it's usually tourists who chatter on the Tube? That is their luxury, and we respect it – but for the rest of us, in London 24/7, blanking out all the noise is the only thinking time we get.
There are conversations to be had about solitude in the capital and the perception, unfair I feel, that Londoners are unfriendly and insular. We are kind and welcoming and will help anyone in trouble – look upset or in anguish on public transport and someone will ask if you're OK. But for everything else: save it for the open air, the wider world. Not our metal, tubular temporary prison, hurtling through the graves of all the previous generations of Londoners who also wanted a bit of peace and quiet for once.
I have a feeling the invention of this badge was a huge art project to test how misanthropic, resistant to change and dismissive of friendliness we are. Looks like we passed with flying colours. Wear your badge with pride if you must, but don't be offended if I move seats away from you – I've no way of knowing who you're going to get talking to you, you see. And it's a narrative I'd rather be excluded from.