The public transport smile handbook

It is widely known that British people smile a lot. When we talk, when we shop, in everyday life, were smily, generally.

However, this trait dies a hideous death when it comes to commuting. Sadly, most people find commuting such a pissy little business that barely anything ever gets smiles at all.

Thus I have made it my business to start cataloguing the British public transport smiles that DO exist. Here is where I am up to so far


Its a difficult one to pull off, this, though if youre well-practiced or British from birth, you probably have it down to a tee. Its one single smile that simultaneously communicates:
a) I have just caused you pain
b) It wasnt intentional
c) I feel bad, yes, but lets remember I didnt do it on purpose, so not that bad.
d) However, we all make mistakes.
e) I am terribly embarrassed.
e) Whoopsies.
f) Lets never speak of this again.

And should be accompanied with the syllables oooo. soh ree – Which is the recognised semi-verbal indicator that youre expressing some form of regret, whether you mean it or not.


Its not all right, of course. Its far from all right. But British etiquette dictates that as well as apologising to a person who has just caused you some measure of bodily harm, it is dictated that you have to give them a little No, its fine, Ive got another one smile to boot.

Ooh, sorry says the Stepper on crushing your metatarsal under heel, Sorry you reply, for causing them the bother of having to speak in public, combined with the annoyance of having to move their foot.

And then you smile your best brave little soldier smile.

NB: This also works for people suddenly sitting on your knee, or pulling large heavy bags on you from an overhead rail.


Public transport etiquette dictates that if two or more people are sitting in close proximity, and a lot more empty seats open up around them, the people sitting too close to each other must immediately deploy themselves an even distance apart among the newly vacated empty seatage.

To NOT do this, and to stay sitting cheek by jowl with a stranger in a near-empty carriage means that you either want to sex them or to murder them.

However, even though moving away is the expected and only acceptable thing to do, there is still the anxiety that this may appear ill-mannered.

Thus a smile must be given that says I am not moving because you smell, but because I appreciate my personal space, as I realise you do too, and I want to prove I neither want to sex OR murder you.

It is a brief smile following which will be followed by both parties working Very Hard to avoid eye contact for the rest of the journey, as accidental eye catching would involve another smile, which would fall into the category of over-familiar. This, incidentally, also applies to all other smiles.


For many years, train and bus companies have been doing their utmost to break down the rigid rules of etiquette that govern British life and make us more of a friendly, relaxed, touchy-feely society. Bless them.

They have mainly been doing this by reducing seat widths and cutting legroom down to below the bare minimum thus encouraging us to cuddle up as much as possible. Sadly, we are still as unhappy about making physical contact, but now it happens on a far more regular basis.

So every bump in the rails, every unexpected between-station stop, theres always the likelihood of bumping knobblies with one of your fellow cargees. Sorry, passengers.

It is important to acknowledge this, otherwise the suspicion is that youre surreptitiously using the train-jiggle as an excuse to get nefariously jiggy with your neighbours without their knowledge. However, acknowledgement must be brief, perfunctory, and emotion-free.

A twitch of the outside corners of the mouth (indicating you may have rubbed them a bit, but you didnt enjoy it in the slightest) followed by studious denial of their existence for the rest of the journey (see above) is all that is required in this situation.


Im afraid I cannot describe this smile, as I have never seen it. In fact, I believe it may be the sole invention of Readers Wives pages and Sexyblogs, so I will leave it to people with better imaginations than my own to describe in those places, I think.

If pushed, Im imagining it is a combination of all of the others, accompanied by a wink. And maybe a growl. I dont know. So out of practice am i at the sport, Im afraid the business of attracting strangers is far beyond me now. Even if I did want to attempt the bog-biffing beam-and-beckon, I dont think I could pull it off.

And why would I wish to? I mean, you do have to wonder, have these people been in train toilets before?


Sly, secretive, conspiratorial, wicked, its the smile that acknowledges that not only are you listening in to the lurid details that your fellow passenger is divulging to her best friend, via the medium of crappy cellphone and filtered through the rest of the carriage, but that someone else is too.

The same goes for the annoying gaggle of schoolgirls shouting the life out of the rest of the tired, home-hungry compartment. You know, in your heart of hearts, that theyre not just driving you mental – but reassurance can suddenly come in a unexpected meeting of eyes and that small shared, secret smile.

A small roll of the eyes, a stifled giggle, a moment of connection that will never be built upon but is perhaps the most human, humoured and happy type of smile on a long public transporting day.

It is my favourite smile. Well almost, apart from the


Similar, but more heart-expanding, its a smile for hot air balloons and fireworks and sunrises and rainbows. Im not saying anymore because its soppy and for goodness sakes, Im both British AND a commuter. We dont do soppy. Nono. Nonononono.

And so yes. Yes. So to the worst

THE Weve been getting on this train together every day for the last 15 years NODSMILE
NB: Here the smile is barely perceptible, as it is possibly the most dangerous of them all.

You get on the same train every morning, and possibly even the same train home each night. You might sit opposite each other, you might get up to leave the train at the same point.

Eventually, someone will weaken, and the normal policy of studious ignorance will be replaced, one day, with the tiniest raise and fall of the chin. Though there may not be what could be called a smile, the face will at least be one of friendly impassion. All well and good.

However – this can lead onto one of the worst possible scenarios:

Say you do live in the same place, and this nodding has begun, ensuring that you do, at least, know the vague resemblance of your travelling non-companion.

Say one Saturday, while out shopping in your local commuter-town supermarket, you see a face walking up the aisle toward you – an extremely familiar face that you cant quite place. You smile! They smile! you carry on walking toward, each trying to place the other. Were you at the same school? Have you met at a dinner party? You smile, wave, prepare to chatter, sometimes even open your mouth

And then you realise that its your next-door nodder from the 8.16, and you panic and jump into the frozen food cabinet. By the time they reach you, youll be happily communing with the fish fingers on intimate terms. This is the best result all round.

Because its not that saying hello in the supermarket would be a bad thing – problem is, next time you got on the train, youd have to step it up a notch. A good morning, a how was your weekend?, a – godamercy – conversation.

People that have changed their routine, job, LIVES for less.


Surely only the beginning of a lifelong project. A handbook, perhaps.

I will keep an eye out for others – and if you spot any not currently in the Smilespotters handbook; do let me know