Sep 20th, 2016, 03:54 PM

No One Smiles on the Paris Metro

By Sarah Mahgoub
Kanye riding the Paris metro with fellow frowners. Picture by: Nils Hamerlinck/Flickr Edited by: Sarah Mahgoub
You’ve done nothing and somehow already managed to annoy everyone.

You push the button and the door swings wide open. You enter the empty metro car and spot an empty seat, so you sit down and turn your music up. You're listening to Kanye's album, bobbing your head and tuning out while looking through your phone at your news feed. Nothing too interesting. For some reason, you feel the urge to look up and away from your phone, and in that moment you seem to finally realize that all eyes are on you, because the cart is now full of people and you’re the only one still seated. People have contorted their bodies around you and have probably been looking at you for a few stops waiting for you to stand up and relieve them. That is how you easily break one of the many unwritten rules of the Paris metro.

It won’t be long until you manage to grasp some of the most obvious ones, such as it being considered rude to speak loudly on the phone, or that you especially shouldn’t speak loudly in English (unless you want to come off as extra obnoxious and make your non-native status obvious). Dealing with non-existent personal space on full trains is part of the game, and, of course, never forget to always stare at the ground by your feet – never in someone's eyes.

Parisians on the metro aren’t going to smile and ask you how your day is, because, to be honest, they don't care. In San Francisco, it is perfectly acceptable to strike up conversations with fellow passengers to help pass the time. Whether it’s talking about the Warriors, the weather, or politics, we love to talk to strangers.

In Paris, you will learn to sit in the silence that fills the cart until it comes to a halt and people begin scrambling and yelling “Pardon!” to get off and away as fast as they possibly can.

So while the metro can often feel like a long, silent, and awkward ride, where people appear to be unhappy upon arrival, there are some occasions when conductors and passengers have managed to challenge the norm of the experience.

While you are probably used to the sight of this:


Photo Credit: Renaud Leon/ Flickr


There have been happier occasions like this: 


In 2015, the conductor of line 6 had been recorded singing Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” over the intercom and even getting passengers to participate by clapping along. 

If you’re from The Bay Area like I am, you are likely familiar with similar public transit experiences on BART (the area's subway system) or MUNI (light rail): conductors making funny announcements, and even art installations such as swings being placed in subway trains.

The subway doesn’t have to be such an awful place, no matter what city you live in, and the efforts of people like the singing line 6 conductor have managed to make even the grumpiest looking Parisians smile. Sadly, it would be unrealistic to always expect such joyful rides here, especially ones with “lovely” singers on the intercom.

Social rules here are different and you, like I, will learn to accept cultural differences, and even come to find them oddly charming. Because, despite the frowning faces, the Paris metro has proved to be an incredibly convenient and efficient system of public transit. Trains run late and frequently, and you are likely to find a station near any destination. It is tourist, student and local friendly, and is extremely affordable, especially compared to the Bay Area and elsewhere in Europe.

You will learn the lines and transfer stations quickly, know to push or swing the door handle to open it, to be polite yet slightly aggressive when needing to exit a full cart, and to be grateful for your Navigo when you're running late. Most importantly you will learn your most valuable skill: the metro stare of death, which will be your weapon against a staring passerby and too-friendly men.

Even the RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens), who run the Paris Metro, tried to get people to smile with their safety advertisements, which could be seen in metro stations around September 2016.


Photos Credit: RATP 

The metro will be your hide out spot in the rain; at times, it will be the calm place where you can settle for a few moments to check your directions. You'll rejoice at the sight of the red sign when you've been walking all day and when it's late. At the end of the day, the metro isn't as gloomy as it's been made out to be. Everyone is just trying to get their destination, some just choose to make their feeling about much clearer than others.  

You should even get off a few stops early and walk the rest of the way, you will surely find something new and amazing in Paris.