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An American's mission to loosen-up "ridiculous" Londoners

Jonathan Dunne’s “Tube Chat?” campaign pins.

@Tube_Chat/Twitter

LONDON -- Jonathan Dunne couldn’t bear the silence any longer. He had to speak out, and he had to make every effort to get fellow Londoners speaking out with him. Or at least speaking.

Dunne is an American in London. He has been, on and off, for 20 years. His current stint in the Big Smoke has gone on for about six years, and his daily commute on the London Underground, or Tube, finally got the better of him.

“I see people I know on the Tube, and pretend not to!” he lamented to CBS News on Friday.

If nobody would engage in friendly banter (and as any resident or visitor to London knows, they won’t), then he’d have to launch a campaign to loosen their lips.

And he did. And it worked, sort of.

Londoners are indeed reacting very strongly to Dunne’s “Tube Chat?” campaign, and the little pins bearing that invitation, hundreds of which he diligently dispersed at a Tube station one morning around rush hour, have engendered passionate discussion among the British capital’s 8 million inhabitants.  

Most of them are “chatting” on social media, however, not the Tube, and the vast majority don’t have much nice to say about the American’s plea for pleasantries.

Twitter, where Dunne gave the Tube Chat? campaign its parallel social media existence, has become a platform of condescension and ridicule.

Some commuters have even taken the opportunity to offer alternative pin slogans they deem more appropriate to London Tube society.

The negative reaction has been so strong and garnered so many “shock and horror” headlines, that Dunne was summoned to do a live interview on Britain’s ITV, to explain his motives.  

So, after 20 years mingling with London’s mute, stony-faced commuters, did this American from the smaller, presumably more congenial Durango, Colorado, simply fail to understand his target audience?

“I completely understand them,” he told CBS News. “I just think they’re ridiculous. I wanted to challenge their bizarre way of thinking.”

Bizarre it may be to an outsider, but silence is an unwritten, golden rule of London Tube travel. It is possibly more important than the written rules, such as “walk on the left, stand on the right,” and “no eating or drinking” on trains.

The other rules are often flaunted. The rule of silence? Speak not of it.

Dunne struggles to explain the British capital commuters’ passion for going out of their way to avoid verbal communication -- even eye contact -- during the ride. He laments it.

Londoners, he suggested, are “just very compartmentalized. They seem to be unable to loosen up at all on their commute.”

While his effort to loosen them up has drawn scorn (much of it rooted, it should be noted, in the other cherished British tradition of sarcastic humor -- but not all of it), he’s not giving up, and he’s also, seemingly, earned some disciples.

Dunne is awaiting a new batch of Tube Chat? pins, and tells CBS News other Londoners are following his lead, making and distributing them on their own initiative.

“Someone made 5,000 to hand out at the West Ham game,” he said.

In spite of the TV appearance, which made him “a little bit of an office celebrity,” Dunne isn’t changing his ways -- but don’t worry, quiet commuters, he won’t strike up a conversation if you don’t.

“I don’t actually chat to anyone on the Tube. I’m not a weirdo,” he told CBS News. “I just thought it would be fun, and people are taking it the wrong way maybe?”

Maybe. Maybe worth asking if you’re ever in London. But do yourself a favor and ask only after you reach your destination.

  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the CBSNews.com foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.