A Modest Proposal: Trains, Planes and Conversation

As the latest contratemps in NJTransit's new Quiet Commute program show, where passengers have argued over what defines "quiet," the urge to converse and the urge to have silence are often in conflict.

But while I support designating some cars as quiet ones, as Amtrak and now NJTransit have done, let's face it: most trains these days are hardly temples of talk, the rare loud cell phone user excepted. So many people are immersed in their iPods, iPhones, iPads, Game Boys, Android phones, or Kindles that transit compartments now resemble libraries. And if by chance there is a rare person speaking out loud, one can always strap on some earbuds and mentally leave them behind.

But what about someone who wants to engage in an activity that used to be normal: talking to the stranger next to him or her? For decades one of my chief pleasures has been chatting up the person next to me on a bus, subway, train or plane. I'll admit a bias to talking with attractive members of the opposite sex — but even the least attractive member of either gender can be enlightening.

Starting these strangely intimate conversations is not always easy. But once I actually break that invisible barrier and say the person next to me, "How about that weather?" I'm usually greeted by grateful smiles. People are hungry for talk. But such conversations are becoming rare.

The fault or blame lies with me as much as the people around me. I am often attached to my own electronic media device. I watched eight seasons of the tv show Scrubs on the subway on my iPhone. Lately, I've been reading from my own Kindle. The point is: now to converse with someone else I first must disengage myself electronically. Once that is done, then I must find someone else already disengaged. It's a double hurdle.

All of which leads me to my proposal: the Conversation Car. It would be a car on a train or bus, or a compartment on an airplane, where one could enter and know that those around you would be ready to chat. Putting speakers against your ears or a screen in front of your face would earn you frowns as severe as those now given to someone who conducts a business call on a cell phone in a Quiet Car.

So should I send a note to NJ Transit, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Amtrak, or American Airlines? A dose of conversation might just be the new needed antidote to our solitary digital domains.