London’s dirty secret

I think it’s probably fair to say that there’s a common perception among the global community that Americans are pretty direct. And that’s no bad thing. For example, I’d say that most Americans are pretty intolerant of poor service, and aren’t afraid to make their dissatisfaction known. As a sweeping generalisation, Americans aren’t known for delivering bad news with a spoonful of sugar, either. It’s the kind of directness that allows utility companies to tell you that there’s going to be a ten day wait for your gas/electricity/phone to be restored, and then remind you in the same breath that prices are rising by 25% next week.

The British are more of a nation of shrinking violets. Clearly, the natives of India wouldn’t necessarily have agreed during the years of colonial expansionism, but the British are essentially more reserved. Or “emotionally retarded,” as some more unkind American commentators would probably describe it.

As I’ve detailed in entries before, most Americans would need an ever-present translator to understand the difference between what a Brit says and what he or she actually means. “It’s fine” generally means “I hate it but I don’t want to cause a scene”. “We should do this again” translates as “It’ll be a cold night in hell before I agree to go for dinner with you again.” And “it’s a really interesting color” is roughly equivalent to “who in the love of all that is righteous and holy would have a urine yellow sofa?”

However, one area in which Britain isn’t shy and retiring is its approach to communicating issues of public safety in and around the transport system. Having taken the train to London on Monday, I was confronted outside the station by an advertising campaign to warn people of the dangers of ignoring the barriers at level crossings. Let’s just say that this thing doesn’t pull its punches. Unsurprisingly, having read an advert demonstrating the eight points on the line where they found the person who jumped a barrier, I wasn’t quite so in the mood for my morning bacon buttysandwich.

Over the next three days, my tube journeys to and from meetings were delayed three times by “passenger action” somewhere in the London Underground system. “Passenger action” is the oft-heard euphemism for somebody jumping into the path of a fast moving train in an attempt to kill themselves.

Except transport bosses have decided that this phrase is not – excuse the pun – hard hitting enough, as they now consistently say that there are delays on the system due to “a person under a train” at a particular station. Talk about not pulling punches. At least with “passenger action” you can naively convince yourself that it’s a result of a teenager pulling the emergency cord, but with “person under a train” all you see are the flailing arms of the ‘victim’ and the horror of the helpless driver. And with three ‘jumpers’ in three days, clearly the credit crunch is taking its toll in London.

In New York, subway suicides are almost never ever mentioned, swept under the carpet like those bits of fluff and cat hair that you can’t be bothered to vacuum. In many ways it’s the public transport equivalent of putting your fingers in your ears and saying “La la la la la la” when you don’t want to hear something.

Strangely though, it seems like New York probably has the right approach. With 1.5 billion users of the subway system every year, there were only 26 subway suicides last year; London has a third less commuters every year, and twice as many suicides. If you ever needed a macabre demonstration of the power of advertising, you just found it.

11 thoughts on “London’s dirty secret

  1. Trixie Trouble

    Actually I understood that “emotionally retarded” was a reference to British men rather than British people.

    On a more macabre note, the bridges in London aren’t as tall as the bridges around Manhattan – maybe there are more ‘jumpers’ in NYC?

  2. Melanie

    As I said yesterday, I was told the only reason it’s ‘person under a train’ is that so no one blames TFL.

    Ignorance is bliss in my opinion. I’d much rather take the ‘typical!’ British response on messed up transport than learn point-blank of the demise of some pooor depressed soul.

    Good to meet you in person finally!

  3. Expat Mum

    Altho’ I agree with you about the Brits (being “fine” etc), I haven’t always found Americans to be particularly direct. Perhaps it’s New York versus the mid-west but I sometimes come out of meetings not having a clue what was either on the agenda or decided. In London I was used to hearing “That’ not right and let me tell you why”, where here it’s more like “I don’t quite see where you’re coming from”.
    American people never die – they “pass away”; addicts are often ‘self-medicating”, complete arseholes have “low self esteem” or “issues” and if you’ve had too much at a party, you can now say you’ve been “over-poured”.

  4. Brooklyn

    26 suicides, really? I don’t remember reading about more than one per year. Considering the delicate sensibilities of Australia’s outpost of tabloid journalism in NYC, Murdoch’s NY Post, I would have thought the subject would have been covered.

  5. werde

    it’s true – an inlaw works for the LIRR and i was fascinated by the frequency he describes of “jumpers.” it’s never covered in our press.

  6. Sven

    Never fear! This Morning did a suicide special over breakfast yesterday. Phil and Fern have saved us from suffering another delayed train ever again. God bless daytime tv.

  7. Gabrielle

    I’ve found that Americans are more PC, as Expat Mum rightly points out, and over the top about it too – but they are more direct. People sometimes tell me to tone it down in bisuiness meetings here, but I don’t and I get the results I want as the Brits, while maybe a bit offended, just pass it off as ‘that brash American’ but definitely rise to the occasion.

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