Do you sit in the back of a taxi or the front (like a dangerous sociopath)?

Freedom from torture of having to “make conversation” is not too much to expect when paying by the mile

‘I never sit shotgun in a taxi. It’s  like choosing to sit next to the only other person in an empty cinema.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

‘I never sit shotgun in a taxi. It’s like choosing to sit next to the only other person in an empty cinema.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

 

There’s always room for more division. Consider this question. When taking a cab do you sit in the back or do you climb into the passenger seat like a dangerous sociopath? I make no judgements on your answer.

The question emerged when researching something unrelated about the differences between Americans and Europeans. An article in Business Insider offers the following advice for US travellers: “While it’s customary for Americans to hop into the back of a cab, in Australia, New Zealand, parts of Ireland, Scotland, and the Netherlands, it’s considered rude not to ride shotgun.”

Well, this is clearly nonsense. The original design of the London black cab didn’t even have a passenger seat. It had a rack, on which you placed your luggage before retreating to the peaceful rear. This confirmed the convention at an early stage. The normal, balanced passenger occupies the back seat of a taxi. They are left alone with their thoughts. Nobody gets in the front by choice.

A Scottish friend snorted at the column. “I never sit shotgun,” she said. “It’s like having an almost-empty cinema and choosing to sit next to the only other person in the theatre.” That’s it exactly. Civilised people encroach as little as possible on the personal space of strangers. Get too close and you may have to “make conversation”. Surely, freedom from that small torture is not much to expect when paying by the mile.

It seems, however, that the article is not entirely inaccurate. Subsequent conversations brought me to one of the nation’s great natural wonders: The Urban-Rural Divide. We are never too far from its yawning gulch. The consensus is that in “the country” it is expected that the passenger sit beside the driver and discuss Daniel O’Donnell, sarcoptic mange mite or whatever it is people care about in such places. Often the taxi driver is – horrible, but true, apparently – known to the passenger and no such conversation can be avoided. The demographic division between front seat and back is as marked as that between, respectively, Trump voters and Clinton voters in the 2016 US election. I conclude from this that anybody who chooses to sit in the front seat is a white supremacist.

Oh come back. That’s just a typically elitist joke from the urban mainstream media. Keep chewing that raw turnip and read on.

The division is, more precisely, between those who enjoy total strangers wondering if they watched “the match” and those who savour the social bubble that protects urban dwellers from interacting with anyone they haven’t met. Call me Miss Daisy if you like, but I do not want to make conversation when I am travelling to the airport before dawn (or any other time). I tip on a sliding scale. Every stubborn, forced effort to break through my polite silence knocks another few percentage points off the initially generous gratuity.

I’m not a complete monster. If some reasonable effort is made at chat and the reasonable rebuff is quickly understood then no liability is incurred. It remains an irony that busy, noisy, populous cities exist to allow us some distance from one another. I haven’t watched “the match”. I don’t know what “the match” is. And I won’t be checking sport reports to cover myself before climbing into a taxi.

It is said that, when asked how he wanted his hair cut, the grim Tory MP Enoch Powell was known to reply: “in silence”. We can generate some distance from that unlovely source by noting that many biographers think the story apocryphal (indeed, some suggest it goes back to the ancients). The message remains. Large numbers of us prefer to remain with our own thoughts when enduring the day’s ordinary rigours.

The socially reserved are no less moral than the promiscuously gregarious. Let us be clear here. There is no snobbery involved. I am sure I speak for most uncommunicative back-seaters when I say that I would be no keener on talking if the driver were Milan Kundera or the Fifth Earl of Buffington. (Okay, I might wonder what the Czech novelist was doing in a Renault Clio on Dorset Street, but allow me some creative licence here.)

At any rate, the conversations confirmed that there is no issue too small to cause lively division. There are those of us who fight to remain in the back even when taking a taxi in groups. There are other, perfectly decent maniacs who feel that any such journey should be approached as if a close cousin were driving us to the beach for ice cream.

Americans can relax a little. Nobody will frown if you take the rear perch upon arrival at the airport. But you may wish to be more cautious in “the country”.

For all kinds of reasons.

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