The Small t terror of First World Commuters

I am a commuter.

Every morning I catch the train from Woy Woy on the Central Coast to St Leonards in the city. There are quiet carriages at my disposal, but I don’t need them in the morning.


In normal circumstances my fellow commuters are all in their own zones – focussed or unfocussed as they prefer – preparing for another day in the salt mines. They tend to be polite. They tend to be considerate of each other’s space.

They tend not to be drama queens who over-react ridiculously to the merest of provocations and refuse to acknowledge apologies.

The Facts

The train rolled into St Leonards. Having clambered out of the seat I occupy like a writing machine for 60 minutes or so, I descended into the vestibule and hovered on the last step – conscious of the personal space of the people below, but also conscious of the people behind me who tend quickly to panic as the stairs get clogged at peak hour.

There was an acceptable space just before the doors, and the closest person to that space was standing next to the central pole. Was she hanging on for stability, or was she preparing to leave the train?

I wasn’t sure, but there was plenty of space in front of her (and no-one owns space on a commuter train except for the space they actually occupy) so, mindful of the people on the stairs (and those already panicking behind them), I stepped into the space.

Immediately, I was conscious of hostility. The woman by the pole was making these strange sounding (but obviously unfriendly) noises, and eventually I twigged they were aimed at me. I turned and asked her:

‘I’m sorry…did I stand in your way?’

Inarticulate angry muttering.

‘Sorry…I thought you were hanging onto the pole and didn’t want to stand here.’

More angry muttering, plus furious eye contact.

‘Okay…well, sorry again…and, try to have a nice day.’

I was getting a little flippant. After all, what exactly had I done to seriously inconvenience her – even if she did want to get off the train at St Leonards (and I wasn’t sure of that yet).

The doors rolled apart and I left the train, and finally I heard what she was saying:

‘Hooray…you won the prize! First off the train!’

I could have ignored her and just walked away, but I was more than a little bewildered as to why I’d pissed her off so badly. I turned again to see her glaring at me, and after a moment said: ‘You’re a seriously unhappy woman, aren’t you.’

She started to flare up again, but by that point I realised there was absolutely zero rationality to deal with, so absence was the better part of discretion. I left the platform shaking my head.

The Analysis

But the incident played on my mind the entire day.

I had done nothing. Absolutely nothing that could reasonably upset a normal, rational human being on a commuter train, so what had set her off? Or at least, what caused her to express her resentment rather than be mildly irritated for half a second and then forget it? And what inspired her to stay pissed off even after an apology?

The answers can only be internal.

Something may have been upsetting her in her personal life, or something may have happened in the minutes before she encountered me, but even still – why would she take out her frustrations on an obviously harmless, innocent and polite person?

I’m trying to put myself into her head to understand this. For me to remonstrate with a fellow commuter, I would have to be convinced that they had done something deliberately offensive or ignorant, and if they stopped and apologised I would be immediately mollified.

What sort of person perceives an injury where there is none and then carries on rudely even after apology?

A person beaten by the world.

A person who feels the need to strike out at those who are unlikely to strike back.

Because that is clearly what I was dealing with – a person who had been bullied and therefore felt the need to bully others – the original vicious cycle.

It is a sad truth that people in our society are beaten down by bad relationships; bad bosses; bad luck; predatory or conniving colleagues; financial problems; lack of jobs; terrorism; the toxic environment; corrupt or useless politicians; an unsustainable rate of change; unrealistic expectations inspired by advertising and the exemplar lives of celebrities; resentment of those more successful; and a deep sense of failure and futility as a result of not being able to cope with some (if not all) of this.

I could sense the unhappy woman’s profound resentment and frustration which was being channelled into an attack on a target she perceived as unlikely to strike back. It’s terrorism with a small t – but analogous with large T terror. Get pissed off with the world but strike back at the innocent instead of the oppressor.

And yet, she would have walked off St Leonards station convinced that I was the aggressor / guilty party and frustrated she hadn’t given me a big enough piece of her mind.

I suspect that what she really needed was a hug, but you can’t hug terrorists.

She might have had a bomb.

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