Subways – A Body Language Festival

Subways – A Body Language Festival

by Barbara Chatzkel

I grew up on the New York City subways. My subway token was a magic ticket to the theater, subway-body-languagethe Guggenheim Museum, Greenwich Village, Times Square, and so many other places. Being able to ride the subway broadened my world view, and not just in the “official” sites I visited. The ride itself gave me a Master’s Degree in Personal Space. Oh, I learned so many things watching the other passengers.

Daily subway commuting taught me to do without a lot of personal space. During rush hour, if you were a “standee” rider, you were not just NEXT to a person but you were probably physically touching at some point. My body language stance for commuting was:

  • Face – neutral facial expression; eyes not focusing on any other passenger; slight smile is fine, but frowns also work.
  • Legs and Feet – maintain a slightly wider stance that normal in order to ensure you did not lose your balance, but keep as small a profile as possible since space is at a premium.
  • Arms – at your side if you are leaning against a wall; holding a strap or pole if you are in the midst of the crowd; no flailing or big arm movements.
  • Torso – strike the delicate balance between taking up space to assert your right to be there and being as invisible as possible so not to get in the midst of disturbances. Before boarding, you made sure you wouldn’t need to access anything (out of a bag, perhaps) that required movement.
  • Hands – become tools to keep you balanced and civil and safe.

If I was lucky to get a seat, then my body language was modified and somewhat more relaxed. But even sitting on a rush hour subway is a crowded experience.

The real art was getting boarding the train from the platform and making sure you stayed on the platform despite the other jostling passengers. I never experienced the Tokyo rush hour subways with the “pushers,” but I know that I needed a strategy every day to get on to the train and then get off at my stop.

What made this a supreme challenge was that New Yorkers “rush” a stopped train. Passengers massed up and down the platform. Getting off was a double challenge – you had to muscle your way out of the car and then get through the determined commuters who were attempting to get on the train you had just exited.

Commuting could be considered a contact body sport.

Fast forward, and I moved to San Francisco. On day one of my new job, I arrived at the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station, bought my ticket, and headed up the escalator to the platform. I got off the escalator, turned to the right side of the platform, and I stopped and stared.


In shock, I joined one of the lines, boarded a train, and rode to work. I knew that this experience was a fluke, probably just an oddity of this station. At the end of the day, I took an escalator down to the platform, and YIKES – the riders were all standing in line again!

Yes, the culture and the body language culture of New York City and San Francisco subway travel was different in significant ways.

The personal space for a BART rider was much larger, and the body language stance was also more relaxed:

  • Face – neutral facial expression; eyes could focus on an individual and then move on; slight smile and nods to other passengers.
  • Legs and Feet – for balance, maintain a slightly wider stance that normal; if a train wasn’t too crowded, you could cross your legs if sitting facing the aisle.
  • Arms – at your side if you are leaning against a wall; holding a strap or pole if you are in the midst of the crowd; no flailing or big arm movements; movement to get things from pockets or briefcases acceptable.
  • Torso – stance is generally relaxed and at ease unless the train is very crowded.
  • Hands – are generally just hands.

When I moved to Washington, D.C. and went to the Metro subway station on my first commute, I wasn’t sure what I would find. Buy the ticket, navigate to the platform, and turn to see LINES OF QUEUEING PASSENGERS!

Metro took the lining up process one step further than the BART. The automated trains stopped at the same place every time, and the space on the platform where the doors opened was painted a different color. So not only did you know to line up, you knew where!

Was the body language of commuters different in these three cities? Not so much. I think the differences were more situational. In Washington, D.C., riding the Metro shortly after 9/11 was a quiet, more humane experience. Body language reflected the emotions and concerns of that time. Riding the BART or Metro to a major sports event was always a jubilant affair. The mood on the ride home depended on the score of the game.

My favorite subway rides were the Metro trips I took to be at the inauguration of three Presidents. Washingtonians love pomp and events in a big way. The joy, wonder, contemplation, explanation, and celebration on those rides are what I think about when I use the word festival.

Next month – the escalators of the Metro and the body language rants.

Barbara Chatzkel’s ability to provide a vibrant and behavior-changing book extends Chatzkelacross industry segments – everyone uses business body language. Her coaching and consulting expertise on business body language grew from conducting union negotiations, managing difficult personnel situations, managing at multiple levels, and extensive business coaching experience. Her new book, Business Body Language: Your Visual Business Card, will be available in print in early 2016. Visit her website today for further information.

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2 Responses to Subways – A Body Language Festival

  1. Fascinating! I’ve also had experience with the Chicago subway/elevated train system. Riders were polite and helpful. Of course, it was 1962!


  2. Experienced the “Tokyo rush” in Brussels during rush hour with 2 other family members, a baby that wasn’t walking yet and 13 pieces of luggage.(The baby was the 14th piece of luggage). It’s a long humerous story. Suffice it to say those cords they have in the cars for stopping the train in an emergency REALLY work. The train stopped on a dime!


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