3 December 2010

Why eye contact matters

One of the things I used to notice when using public transport in Madrid, was that the bus drivers seemed much happier than those in London. One of the reasons must be, of course, that the London bus drivers are stuck behind a glass pane. But I am sure that one of the reasons why Madrid drivers are happier is that passengers actually say Hello on their way in.

Granted, one of the things that struck me as odd but sweet when I first arrived in London all those 20 years ago, was that some people would shout Thanks Driver! as they left the bus. Quite pleasant, but they are in the minority, considering how many people don't say anything when they leave.

In Madrid, however, the driver always looks at you as you step onto the bus and most people say Hello. It's just an extension of saying Good Morning to a neighbour you pass by on the street. (I was saddened to see that some buses have recently added a glass to the driver's compartment - I hope it doesn't change their mood.)

It can't be all the Oyster card's fault - using this pass means that you don't need to interact with the driver to get on the bus. In Madrid we've had passes and Metrobus (carnet style) for ages. 

So, intrigued by whether the lack of eye contact and Hello factor of London bus drivers, I decided to see whether there was something I could do to make my bus journey in London as pleasant as that in Madrid. And you know what? I could and I did.

It's very simple, you should try it. As you step onto the bus and touch your oyster card on the reader, look at the driver. If they make eye contact, say hello. And you will be pleasantly surprised most of the time. Granted, some times, around 5% of the times, you won't make eye contact as the bus driver will be looking at their mirror to try and see whether everyone who needs to has got out, or sometimes they will just not look at you. (In this last case, these are the drivers most likely to be unpleasant, drive off when someone runs to the bus stop etc...)

But in 95% of the times, you will get a Hello and probably a smile back.

And once you've made eye contact, if you need anything else later, it will be easier to communicate. Today, for example, I got on a bus with those annoying monitors downstairs which show the footage from the CCTV camera. The monitor kept flickering. I waited my 5 stops and as no-one was saying anything to the driver, I let him know the screen wasn't working before getting off. He smiled, he thanked me and hopefully, he turned it off!

On a related travel matter, if you board a plane and sit at the emergency exit, a member of the crew will come and ask you to read the instructions, so that you can save your fellow passengers should the plane crash (no pressure! - no pun intended....). I wonder, whether in addition to making you aware of your responsibility, they are also making eye contact with you so that if something happens, you have already had some sort of connection with them and are more likely to follow their orders.

Eye contact - I know, it's nothing new that it's essential to conversation, but if we used it more often, the world would be a better place.

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