You can almost hear a pin drop in the jam-packed train. People barely glance around, careful to be unobtrusive and respect their seatmates’ personal space. The silence is unbroken by the “doodoodoodoo doodoodoodoo doodoodoo-doo-doo” Nokia ringtone or the marimba iPhone ringtone that everyone in Iceland recognizes. The reason, in part, is that this train is in Japan. People whisper when they must converse, but are otherwise in their own worlds, bent over their phones or listening to music. The rules prohibit phone conversations on the train. Without exception, the Japanese respect the rules and do not disturb one another.
Everyone stares and laughs loudly
Icelanders might understandably be puzzled by this exceptional courtesy. In Iceland, the norm is completely different. Sometimes it’s even as if people compete to cause the greatest commotion on the bus. The louder you laugh, the more jealous you make everyone else. It’s the “look how much fun we’re having!” mindset. Icelanders are also experts at sizing each other up. Everyone stares at everyone else and personal space is almost nonexistent. People peer at each other long enough to ascertain beyond a shadow of a doubt whether they know each other.
Avoiding seat mates on public transportation
When it comes to personal space and courtesy on public transportation, Iceland and Japan are quite dissimilar, save for one commonly held belief: you do not sit next to a fellow passenger unless absolutely necessary. On a Japanese train, people move over if the seat next to them opens up. The corner seat is the most coveted. The same is true of the bus in Iceland. People set their bags in the window seat and sit on the aisle so no one can sit next to them. Given the opportunity, people often move in order to sit alone. Travel companions are sometimes separated from each other and forced to sit next to or between other passengers. It seems that most want nothing more than to avoid sitting beside strangers. Such behavior surely stems from insecurity. But what should you do if you’re forced to converse with the person beside you?
Victims of the weather
At first glance, it seems there aren’t many acceptable topics of conversation. Very few people want to field personal questions from strangers. In Iceland, one topic stands out as more acceptable than any other: the weather. “Quite the wind today,” we often hear. Icelanders complain to each other about the weather, grumbling about and even cursing the short winter days, the cold, etc. In Japan, it’s also considered acceptable to discuss the weather. There, people talk about how much it rains, or say that it’s too hot or too cold. In both countries, it’s socially acceptable to complain or joke about the weather. Oh how we suffer! We are merely victims of the elements! Both the dark winter in Iceland and the rainy season in Japan are times of year when holidays are few and people easily sink into a bit of depression. The weather certainly has an effect on people’s disposition.
Nosy questions or acceptable icebreakers?
But weather is not the most common topic of conversation everywhere in the world. In England, it’s common to ask, “How was the commute?” The answer could then be something like, “Well, I just took line number four for 45 minutes and arrived at a quarter to.” “Yeah, okay, great,” the response might be. The British talk about their commutes, the traffic and the crushing crowds. In the United States, you can compliment a stranger’s clothes or accessories. It’s not uncommon to say to someone, “Nice shirt” or “Wow, I love your bag. Where did you buy it?” This might spark a short conversation about how the shirt was a birthday present or how the bag was on sale at The GAP. In Shenzhen in southern China, the question “Have you eaten?” is a common icebreaker. This is not intended to imply an invitation to eat together, but is rather a way to start a general conversation about food and what the parties most recently ate.
No need to despair
It’s unlikely that questions Icelanders consider invasive will become acceptable icebreakers overnight. It’s difficult, for instance, to imagine a conversation between Jón and Gunna, forced to sit together on the bus, about whether they’ve eaten recently. But perhaps the fact that in China it’s customary to discuss food with strangers can itself be a useful icebreaker. In any case, it’s completely unnecessary to despair when someone suddenly sits next to you on the bus. You can always talk about the weather!
Karítas Hrundar Pálsdóttir writing for Stúdentablaðið
Translated by Julie Summers