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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What does the fate of Detroit tell us about the future of Silicon Valley?

Detroit, 2008. Image: Getty.

There was a time when California’s Santa Clara Valley, bucolic home to orchards and vineyards, was known as “the valley of heart’s delight”. The same area was later dubbed “Silicon Valley,” shorthand for the high-tech combination of creativity, capital and California cool. However, a backlash is now well underway – even from the loyal gadget-reviewing press. Silicon Valley increasingly conjures something very different: exploitation, excess, and elitist detachment.

Today there are 23 active Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites in Santa Clara County, California. Its culture is equally unhealthy: Think of the Gamergate misogynist harassment campaigns, the entitled “tech bros” and rampant sexism and racism in Silicon Valley firms. These same companies demean the online public with privacy breaches and unauthorised sharing of users’ data. Thanks to the companies’ influences, it’s extremely expensive to live in the area. And transportation is so clogged that there are special buses bringing tech-sector workers to and from their jobs. Some critics even perceive threats to democracy itself.

In a word, Silicon Valley has become toxic.

Silicon Valley’s rise is well documented, but the backlash against its distinctive culture and unscrupulous corporations hints at an imminent twist in its fate. As historians of technology and industry, we find it helpful to step back from the breathless champions and critics of Silicon Valley and think about the long term. The rise and fall of another American economic powerhouse – Detroit – can help explain how regional reputations change over time.

The rise and fall of Detroit

The city of Detroit became a famous node of industrial capitalism thanks to the pioneers of the automotive age. Men such as Henry Ford, Horace and John Dodge, and William Durant cultivated Detroit’s image as a centre of technical novelty in the early 20th century.

The very name “Detroit” soon became a metonym for the industrial might of the American automotive industry and the source of American military power. General Motors president Charles E. Wilson’s remark that, “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,” was an arrogant but accurate account of Detroit’s place at the heart of American prosperity and global leadership.

The public’s view changed after the 1950s. The auto industry’s leading firms slid into bloated bureaucratic rigidity and lost ground to foreign competitors. By the 1980s, Detroit was the image of blown-out, depopulated post-industrialism.

In retrospect – and perhaps as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley – the moral decline of Detroit’s elite was evident long before its economic decline. Henry Ford became famous in the pre-war era for the cars and trucks that carried his name, but he was also an anti-Semite, proto-fascist and notorious enemy of organised labor. Detroit also was the source of defective and deadly products that Ralph Nader criticized in 1965 as “unsafe at any speed”. Residents of the region now bear the costs of its amoral industrial past, beset with high unemployment and poisonous drinking water.


A new chapter for Silicon Valley

If the story of Detroit can be simplified as industrial prowess and national prestige, followed by moral and economic decay, what does that say about Silicon Valley? The term “Silicon Valley” first appeared in print in the early 1970s and gained widespread use throughout the decade. It combined both place and activity. The Santa Clara Valley, a relatively small area south of the San Francisco Bay, home to San Jose and a few other small cities, was the base for a computing revolution based on silicon chips. Companies and workers flocked to the Bay Area, seeking a pleasant climate, beautiful surroundings and affordable land.

By the 1980s, venture capitalists and companies in the Valley had mastered the silicon arts and were getting filthy, stinking rich. This was when “Silicon Valley” became shorthand for an industrial cluster where universities, entrepreneurs and capital markets fuelled technology-based economic development. Journalists fawned over successful companies like Intel, Cisco and Google, and analysts filled shelves with books and reports about how other regions could become the “next Silicon Valley”.

Many concluded that its culture set it apart. Boosters and publications like Wired magazine celebrated the combination of the Bay Area hippie legacy with the libertarian individualism embodied by the late Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. The libertarian myth masked some crucial elements of Silicon Valley’s success – especially public funds dispersed through the U.S. Defense Department and Stanford University.

The ConversationIn retrospect, perhaps that ever-expanding gap between Californian dreams and American realities led to the undoing of Silicon Valley. Its detachment from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans can be seen today in the unhinged Twitter rants of automaker Elon Musk, the extreme politics of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and the fatuous dreams of immortality of Google’s vitamin-popping director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Silicon Valley’s moral decline has never been clearer, and it now struggles to survive the toxic mess it has created.

Andrew L. Russell, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of History, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.