The Tube Chat badges show that London isn't rude: it has a negative politeness culture

No one wants these. Image: Tube Chat.

This week, someone has started handing out badges on the tube. These badges – white, bearing a London Underground logo and the two words “Tube Chat?” – are intended to inform other travellers that the wearer would, no honestly, really, genuinely welcome being engaged in conversation by total strangers.

You’re probably already thinking, “Hmm, that doesn’t sound very London to me.” And you’d be right: it doesn’t. Despite that logo, a colour bar that replicates the tube line colour schemes and the same font used for the Underground, this is absolutely not an official Transport for London (TfL) campaign. It’s the work of someone called Jonathan Dunne, who tweets excitedly about his creation as @tube_chat.

Dunne, whose project is founded on the idea that “everyone could do with a daily chat”, yesterday told the BBC that handing out the badges had been unexpectedly “difficult” and that he had anticipated it being “way more fun” than it has been. “Twenty percent [of commuters] think it’s nice and about 80 per cent of people think it’s terrible, worst idea ever.” 

If you glance at Twitter, though, you’ll find that approximation was, if anything, over-optimistic. And by Thursday lunchtime Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley was joking that this “abomination” would require investigation at Mayor’s Question Time. 

There may, joking apart, be IP issues surrounding logo usage that TfL could choose to invoke should the project trouble it. And it may have cause. The official-seeming badge could easily distract from TfL’s more seriously-intentioned and authorised badges: the longstanding “Baby on Board” one for expectant mothers, and the new badge for people who may have difficulty standing, but whose disadvantages are not immediately apparent to the observer, launched two weeks ago by Mayor Sadiq Khan. 


So, why does everyone hate the idea so much? And how did Tube Chat’s creator not see it coming? I have a theory. A Politeness Theory, in fact. 

Politeness Theory is a branch of Semiotics that has existed for a few decades. Simplifying hugely (it’s a big field), Politeness Theory holds that there are “positive politeness” cultures typified by casual, but often ritualised, intervention (“Hey! How are you?”/”Salaam”/”Ayubowan”), the ignoring of which is considered rude. But there are also “negative politeness” cultures, where the thing that’s considered rude is intervention in another’s “personal space” without strong cause. 

Japan has a negative politeness culture, of which its primary language’s complex set of spoken honorifics is often taken to be a strong example. Japanese cities, moreover, have an even more overt negative politeness culture. The ritualised nature of Japanese politeness is rendered impossible to apply equitably by the sheer scale of a city like Tokyo, making it more polite to acknowledge no one, rather than risk offence by acknowledging some and not others – which would be construed as ruder than ignoring all. 

London is like that. In London, not acknowledging others without cause is a form of politeness, not rudeness, occasioned by the sheer number of people. 

To mistake London’s negative politeness for rudeness is a common error, one made not only by people from countries with a positive politeness culture, but even people from the rest of this country. (The UK as a whole is judged to have a negative politeness culture, albeit one not as paradoxically overt as London’s or Japan’s.) After all, we’ve all seen people delightedly greet close friends on the tube once that protective negative politeness bubble is punctured. That bubble is not rude, or even unfriendly; it’s a contextually appropriate form of being polite.  

Jonathan Dunne is American: from a country with a classic positive politeness culture (mocked by even non-London Britishers as the “Have a nice day!” culture). Dunne has well-meaningly blundered into a classic culture clash between the two countries that are, as the cliché goes, divided by a common language, mistaking an alien politeness for a familiar rudeness.  

Tellingly, the first example of negative politeness speech in Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson’s Politeness: Some universals in language usage (1971/87), a sort of magnus opus of Politeness Theory, is “Would you know where Oxford Street is?” 

Of course it is. Of course it is.

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Eritrea’s Modernist architecture: a striking reminder of years of oppression

Asmara’s futuristic Fiat Tagliero Building (1938) was built to resemble an aircraft. Image: David Stanley/Creative Commons.

Those with an eye for architecture will notice something peculiar when visiting Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Dotted around the city are exceptional examples of Modernist architecture, a style that emerged in Europe during the interwar period. Rejecting gratuitous ornateness in favour of minimalism, function and rationalism, the style grew to dominate 20th century design. But it didn’t arrive in an east African country in a remotely benevolent way.

The huge continent was carved up in the span of just a few decades, in an era of history known as the “Scramble for Africa”. Described in German as torschlusspanik, meaning “panic of a closing gate”, European powers grabbed as much as they could to prevent their rivals gaining the upper hand.

Having consolidated his power in Italy, fascist dictator Mussoulini looked to Africa to expand what he saw as the new Roman Empire. It was in this context that the country seized this stretch of coast along the Red Sea that became Eritrea. And it was Asmara that was going to be the new African capital, La Piccola Roma – Little Rome.

Standing at 2,000m above sea level, the capital’s location was chosen in part because it was cooler than the brutally hot coastal regions. As was commonplace across European colonies, the colonisers wanted to avoid the extremes of the lands they conquered and find places more comparable to the climates they had left behind.

Where the colonial money arrived, the locals followed and Asmara became a city of contrasts. Intermingled with the Tukul’s, round huts of stone or mud topped with conical roofs that are indigenous to East Africa, are hundreds of buildings in the modernist style that were erected by the Italian colonisers from 1935. Many such buildings, including the Fiat Tagliero petrol station, the Town Hall and the Cinema Roma, came to represent East African Modernism. But why was there this push towards the style?


Peter Volgger, an academic who studied the impact of the modernist architecture in post-colonial Eritrea, has a theory. “Colonial cities were often projection screens for modernist fantasies and were built as futuristic visions for European cities.” So what couldn’t be done back home could be done in the colonial setting. Fantasies could be fulfilled.

The fall of fascism in Europe after WWII didn’t mark the end of colonialism in Africa, as the losers’ colonies were transferred over to the winners. Britain governed the colony for a while before power at a federal level was handed over Ethiopia. It was only in 1993 that Eritrea finally gained independence from its larger neighbour; a hundred years after the Italians first conquered the region.

Yet the Modernist buildings continued to be built long after the Italians had left. The IRGA garage, for instance, which is often held up as a key example of Eritrean modernism was built in 1961.

It’s in part due to such constructions that in 2017, Asmara was recognised as by Unesco as a site of particular cultural importance and included in their world heritage list. This not only brings in money from Unesco directly, but also induces international interest and tourism. The inclusion of Asmara in the organisation’s heritage list marked a shift towards inclusivity, having often been criticised for its lack of sites in Africa. Of the 845 cultural sites worldwide, Asmara is one of only 52 that are from Sub-Saharan Africa. In Germany alone there are 41 sites and Italy 49.

Long overdue, the significance of Asmara and its modernist buildings has been recognised. Despite their architectural interest they cannot and should not be divorced from the grim historical reality of their existence. For the millions who call the city home they stand monument to the arrogant dreams of empire that consumed the country for over a hundred years.