TransLink Podcast: What’s the T on saying thanks and “secret friends” on transit

TransLink Podcast: What’s the T on saying thanks and “secret friends” on transit

People disembarking from the rear door of a bus

Dr. Amy Hanser, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, joins us to discuss the fascinating social interactions we share on transit. We also hear from bus operators to find out what they think when you say thanks!

HOST JAWN JANG: Hey, welcome to What’s the T, the TransLink Podcast. I’m your host, Jawn Jang. And on this episode, we dive a little bit deeper into this.

DR. AMY HANSER: I don’t think I’ve ever seen people thank bus drivers like they do here. [Chuckles]

JAWN: Why do we say thank you when we’re getting off the bus? Let’s tap in to What’s the T?


VOICEOVER 1: The next station is.

VOICEOVER 2: Welcome to What’s the T: the TransLink Podcast.

JAWN: In the previous episode we discussed transit icks, the do’s and don’ts when taking public transportation, and that allows us to now take a step back and examine transit-specific social behavior. Now, transit etiquette definitely plays a role in all of this, but we are going to need an expert today who can really explain why we do the things we do on public transit.

DR. AMY HANSER: It’s really, really fun to get on the bus and have a kind of your sociology eyeglasses on.

JAWN: This is Dr. Amy Hanser, an associate professor for the University of British Columbia’s Department of Sociology. Dr. Hanser studies human social relationships and institutions and she also happens to be a regular TransLink customer.

DR. HANSER: All public spaces involve certain norms of interaction, especially between strangers and public buses, are, are, they’re like a theatre right? They’re like a stage where you can sit and watch how people interact with each other. So, for example, just this morning on the bus and on on the SkyTrain, it was really fun to watch all of the ways that people navigate and negotiate with each other.

The busses are a really fascinating space where you, you know, you get on the bus because you’re going somewhere, right? So the bus isn’t really the purpose of your trip, but you have to do something with your attention once you’re on there. Right? And so how people make themselves available to others and then withdraw and keep themselves occupied, all of those things are so interesting.

JAWN: The interactions we have on transit is very unique. Like it’s unlike the interactions that we might have in a grocery store. And I think the very Canadian example of a grocery store interaction is if we have to get by somebody in an aisle, I think we all do the “oh, just coming through here” or “oops, pardon me,” and that might be it.

But the interactions that we’ll have with each other in transit – a little bit different and sometimes maybe a little bit more like intimate, is the word that I’m thinking of, though I’m not sure it’s exactly the right one.

DR. HANSER: Yeah, actually, one of the ways that I think about transit is, you know, often when people write about public space in cities in particular, they, they represented as this space where we encounter strangers, people who are different from us. It’s where the vibrancy of the city is located. But if you actually think about it, there’s not a lot of spaces where we’re in close proximity with strangers.

And your example of the grocery store is and is a good one, right? Where it’s, it’s very fleeting. But on the bus, you’re actually, you have much more of a sustained proximity to people you don’t know. And for that reason, I think it’s yeah, it’s a more demanding space, and sometimes more fun. But it does mean that it’s a different, it’s very it’s quite different from walking down the street or even being in a park or something like that.

It’s, it’s a very distinct public space.

JAWN: I always find it fascinating that I tend to notice that there are like patterns. When I’m taking the bus, for example, and if it’s not too busy, everyone tries to distance themselves by at least one seat. There’s always that one courtesy rule that’s unwritten. It’s not written anywhere in TransLink policy, we know that much. But, we always try to give each other at least one space in between, just so that it feels like we can respect people’s boundaries.

And yet during rush hour, we ignore that policy because, you know, convenience is a high demand. It’s in high demand at that time. So how do we make those decisions in the moment? Is it just something where we all acknowledge that there’s a time and place to respect those boundaries?

DR. HANSER: So, I think it actually I don’t think everyone does it the same. And I agree with you entirely that depending on how crowded the bus is and the time of day that there’s these different norms about how much you space yourself. And I actually, when you actually do sort of systematic observations, it’s really fun when you see people spacing themselves and then you see someone violate the norm and you’re like, oh, I wasn’t expecting that!

But people do all the time actually. So, they’re not they’re not universal norms. Just this morning on the bus, I watched a young woman who had her backpack on the seat next to her, and I kept watching to see when she would move it. And she did. She moved it much later than I would have. I thought the bus was already pretty crowded, but she waited until there were still just a few seats open and then she removed her backpack.

So, I think it’s something that we, yeah, these are unspoken rules and we learn them and not everybody follows them. And, and, and that can make people unhappy when they’re riding the bus. And even people who follow them don’t all have consensus on when you know what exactly the rules are, which again makes the busses kind of negotiated space that can sometimes be uncomfortable.

Right? When, when somebody is not doing what you think they should be doing.

JAWN: From what you’re talking, it’s sounds like you are more of a bus taker or bus rider than you might be with the SkyTrain or the SeaBus or the West Coast Express. So let’s get into one of the more interesting quirks about the bus, and that is when you get to the very back, there’s a particular set of seats that face one another and there’s not a lot of leg room, which means if you were to fill every single seat, people’s knees would have to be lined up like dominoes where it’s one person’s knee and then another person’s knee and then so forth and so on.

DR. HANSER: How do you think people deal with that particular setup? Because I think it’s a very like it requires a decent amount of coordination and communication If people want to sit like that the way that it’s designed.

Yeah, I think I think you’re right. I think it, it requires coordination and it may be something that we don’t appreciate about transit is how much courtesy people are constantly extending to each other. I really think we don’t we don’t always recognize, like this kind of collective accomplishment of being in crowded spaces and for the most part, accommodating everybody.

And yeah, and some people like it like we were saying before, some people don’t follow the rules the way you would hope. You know, somebody sits with their legs spread open. And I actually did an interview with a young man who said that, he quite a tall young man, he said he would purposely sit next to the man spreaders to force them to, to pull their legs in.

And I was like, oh, that’s like a kind of vigilante bus rider ride. It’s like enforcing the rules. But, but ,I you know, so sometimes it doesn’t work out. Sometimes there’s somebody who messes up the whole system and makes everyone uncomfortable. But mostly people really coordinate quite well, and they do it in those spaces. They do it when they get on and they move out of the way for each other.

I, I think every time I ride the bus, I’m, I’m constantly seeing all these small courtesies that people extend to each other, which I think also makes the bus a really interesting space to observe.

JAWN: I’m sure you’ve noticed it as well. But the interactions that people have with the operator, the drivers, that’s also very special sometimes because I think – maybe I’m wrong here, but over the course of a few months, if you’re a student or if you’re just consistently going to work, taking the same bus route every day, you will get to know the bus driver kind of well, but also not very well at all.

JAWN: So, maybe take us into that particular relationship.

DR. HANSER: Yeah. So, I actually I think it’s one of the things that makes the bus so distinct from, from the SkyTrain is the presence of the bus driver. And bus drivers are really interesting, you know, from a from a sociological perspective, the study of social interactions. Drivers are, are what you might call a kind of open they occupy an “open position”, meaning that they’re somebody that people can initiate interactions with freely.

Right. Like they’re, they’re a position of authority – they’re somebody. So, they’re, they’re very exposed to interactions with other people because of their position. I also feel like they they influence the, the culture of the bus, right? Having someone in a position of authority at the front is really different than being on one of those SkyTrain cars with nobody in a position of authority on.

So, there’s lots to think about there and I haven’t actually fully thought through how that shapes the bus. But I agree with you that people get used to having a certain bus rider. You know, if you take the same bus every day, you have, you’ll have the same driver. And over the years, I’ve had lovely interactions with drivers, including, you know, getting on with one kid and the driver saying, “where’s your brother?”

You know, “is he sick today?” as you go to school, like really quite lovely. And I’ve also seen drivers really look after people. I mean, they can really play an important role. I think it’s a, I think that’s a challenging part of their job, to, to get that right. But I think a lot of people do forge relationships with bus drivers and then of course, you lose them, right, when the schedules change.

JAWN: It’s one of those unique things about being an operator because I think it’s a very it’s a difficult job. And I don’t know that how many people realize that it’s more than just driving a bus. It is developing these quasi relationships with the people that you pick up all the time. And yeah, when those service changes come into effect, you know, I think there’s a little bit of sadness probably both ways because the operators might not get the same passengers and the passengers might not get the same operators.

So, until those changes kind of reset later on in the year, there’s this little pause or a moment where you just kind of have to adjust. But to that point, one thing that I want to ask you, since you’ve mentioned you took a bus in Sweden, when passengers got off that bus, did they thank the driver, the way that Vancouver writes kind of do here?

DR. HANSER: I don’t think I’ve ever seen people think bus drivers like they do here. But I do feel like it’s a habit that people pick up really quickly. Once you come here, it just feels like the right thing to do. And it’s actually very funny to get off the bus way out at UBC, at the like last stop when the bus is filled with people.

And it’s just, you know, “thank you”, “thank you”, “thank you”, “thank you”, “thank you”, “thank you!” It’s yeah, it’s a very entrenched norm. I think it’s wonderful. I think, I mean, I don’t know how I often wonder how the bus drivers feel when like 30 people thank them rapidly in a row, like you can’t respond to all of those “thank you’s.”

Or if it feels like it’s just a ritual that people go through. But I, having ridden a bus and numerous other places in transit and other places, I feel like the drivers here, their level of courtesy and care towards passengers is exceptional. And I don’t know if that if there’s a connection there between people saying thank you and actually having like genuinely high levels of service on transit.

JAWN: Okay, let’s hit pause on that for just a quick moment and just be really honest here. Do you say thank you when you’re getting off the bus? I like to believe that it’s something most of us do. I mean, it’s a small but very kind gesture that takes no effort at all. Well, producer Alan and I traveled to the Hamilton Transit Center in Richmond to hear directly from the operators themselves and hear what they have to say about all of this, especially when it comes down to you saying thank you.

BUS OPERATOR 1: Well, personally, I think it’s kind of natural to say thank you, we’re Canadian, aren’t we? After all, please and thank you goes a long way. And most parents teach it to their kids at a young age. As a matter of fact, this morning I had probably a two-and-a-half-year-old get off the bus and said, “Mr. Bus Driver, thank you for taking me to school.”

That was the first time I’ve had, you know, a full sentence like that. It kind of makes your heart feel good, right? Because, you know, we’re, we’re all out there, you know, busting our humps for each other. And when you get, you know, the thank you, that is just kind of a courteous, courtesy, I should say. That, that goes, goes a long way.

BUS OPERATOR 2: Thank you is good, I appreciate it. You know, why not?

JAWN: Has anyone ever given you a gift, like maybe for… [inaudible]

BUS OPERATOR 2:  Just candy, all candy.

JAWN: What’s your favorite candy?

BUS OPERATOR 2: Chocolates, dark chocolates.

JAWN: Final thoughts then, when people say thank you and maybe sometimes it’s it’s, you know, one after the another. “thank you”, “thank you”, “thank you!” as they’re trying to get off the bus… see you’re smiling, right? Does that make you… smile?

BUS OPERATOR 2: Make me happy? Yeah. I’m saying, “Okay. Good day.” [Inaudible]

JAWN: It becomes a nice little rhythm.

BUS OPERATOR 2: That’s right. If they’re happy, I’m happy.

BUS OPERATOR 3: I notice when people don’t say thank you more than I notice when people say thank you.

JAWN: Interesting.

BUS OPERATOR 3: because I hear it every day, all the time, the thank you. But I always go with a “welcome” and a wave.

JAWN: So, do you ever have, like, the regulars that come on when you’re on it?


JAWN: Oh, what is that like? Do you ever build relationships with these folks?

BUS OPERATOR 3: Oh, yeah, all the time.

JAWN: Maybe go into that a little bit more. Because I think when people say, like, you build relationships, what does that really mean? Is it just like, “Hey, how are you? How was your day?” sort of thing?

BUS OPERATOR 3: Yeah, I call them my people.


BUS OPERATOR 3: And when I see the same people every day and they’re not there, for instance, I’ll be looking for them. I’m like, And the next day they’ll come on, I go, “Where? Where were you? You know, I was looking for you!”

JAWN: I was worried about you! [chuckles]


And they’ll say, “Oh, I got a ride!” And I’ll say, “Well, that’s not acceptable. You’re supposed to be with me!” Yeah, you know, so it becomes like this rapport.

JAWN: Oh, that’s really fun.

BUS OPERATOR 3: Kind of fun thing, you know?

JAWN: And I think it helps to, like, personalize the whole commuting experience.

BUS OPERATOR 3: Exactly.

JAWN: Yeah. So then likewise, when you notice your regular, your people, maybe one of them isn’t there that day, they probably notice when you’re not there that day.

BUS OPERATOR 3: Oh yeah.

JAWN: And they’ll give you the same sort of attitude right back, like “Where you been?”

BUS OPERATOR 3: They’re just like, you know, where you’re sick or whatever. And I’m like, “Yeah, you know, I had a sick day” or whatever, or, you know, I had to do a different route that day or I’m off those days. And they go, “Oh, okay.” So they’ll know. They get to know what shift you are in. Like, you know,

JAWN: Right, Right.

BUS OPERATOR 3: They get to know what, what your, what your schedule is.

JAWN: You know how when people say thank you when they get off the bus?


JAWN: How does that make you feel?

BUS OPERATOR 4: Wonderful.

JAWN: Yeah!

BUS OPERATOR 4: Special. I like it.

JAWN: Yeah?


JAWN: So, when people don’t say thank you, how does that make you feel?

BUS OPERATOR 4: It’s okay. I just thinking they having a bad day, maybe. Or…

JAWN: Or busy.

BUS OPERATOR 4: Or busy? Yeah, they just forget, but, well, that’s a little bit sad.

JAWN: So that I’m wondering too, because, like, you’ve been with CMBC for a few years, you’ve gone through some, like, holidays too. Have you ever gotten the gift from anyone just being like, “Thank you for being a bus operator?”

BUS OPERATOR 4: I think I got a flower one time.



JAWN: Tell me more about that. What what was happening on that day? Was it just a really nice person?

BUS OPERATOR 4: Yeah, it was just a nice person. He had an extra flower, I guess. He was talking to somebody and he gave me.

JAWN: And you put it in your hair, right?


JAWN: So, then I’m wondering if you do recognize customers sometimes. Like regular customers?

BUS OPERATOR 4: Oh, yes. Yeah. Yeah.

JAWN: And do you start to make friends with certain people like that?

BUS OPERATOR 4: Yes. Yeah, Yeah. You know, like, “Have a good day”, “See you tomorrow.”

JAWN: When you get pulled to a different shift, a different route. Does it make you sad, a little bit Because you know, you won’t see them for a little while.

BUS OPERATOR 4: Yes, actually. Well, it does to me. Yeah. I tend to pick the same route all the time because I get used to the same people.

JAWN: And do they ever say, “Where have you been?”

BUS OPERATOR 4: Oh yeah. When I’m on vacation? Yeah. Who would wonder “Where have you been?”

CUSTOMER: Thank you.

BUS OPERATOR 5: You’re welcome, have a good day.

JAWN: Quick, easy and such a nice thing to do. And now we know for sure operators love it when you take the time to say thanks. And let’s face it, you’ll feel good about it, too. Alright, let’s get back to our chat with Dr. Hanser.

[whoosh sound effect]

What about the, sort of secret friends is the way we like to term it, this particular phrase we give to each other when we know that when we take the same bus or the same SkyTrain every morning and every afternoon, you look around and you’ll tend to notice the same people. They might not be people you know. More frequently, it’s people that you just kind of notice because you just happen to share the same route.

What do you think that interaction is like? And do we ever muster the courage to one day be like, “Hey, I noticed that we happened to take the same bus together all the time. My name is X, Y, Z”, and then it’s the beginning of a wonderful friendship.

DR. HANSER: So, I, I suspect that does happen sometimes, but probably relative only infrequently. I’ve also heard the term bus friend used, as, you know, these people you know you know them but you don’t know them and you, you share a bus schedule with them. Some years ago actually had students in a class do interviews with people about their experiences riding the bus.

And one student’s interviewee described what he used the term “bus friend” for these people and he said he didn’t, he felt really torn about interacting with them. He, he decided he didn’t want to because he didn’t want to set up a situation where he was then obligated to maintain the relationship. So, once you initiate an interaction, every successive encounter is going to kind of demand more of you.

And he felt like he didn’t quite want to take that on, which I think is a fascinating, and may, may explain why people are so reticent. Right, is that if you do initiate an interaction with somebody, then it’s probably going to be more established. But I’ve definitely, I’ve interacted with uh, like I have established relationships with, with quote unquote, “bus friends” before or “secret friends”, But often they’ve just been like somebody that you’ll then chat with on the, you know, the 20 minutes that you share on the bus or something like that.

But I have had “bus buddies”, which is people usually they are people that I wait at the same bus stop on a regular schedule and in my experience it was actually other people taking their kids to and from daycare that we established much more fulsome relationships where we, we would always talk with each other and we would often sit together and help each other with seats and things like that.

JAWN: So there is this general narrative about Vancouver and it being a hard city to make friends with and being a hard city to maybe start opening up with one another with. And yet that seems to kind of not exist within transit because to your point, we always try to be more polite, more aware and more courteous with one another on, on transit.

How do these two worlds sort of merge together to what we have now is a perceived reality in Metro Vancouver?

DR. HANSER: Well, I guess my first comment would be: I don’t, I don’t buy the data that like I’ve actually looked at some of those studies that claim that it’s hard, that people are lonely here and it’s hard to make friends. And I’m like, that, they really look like half full or half empty kind of studies. So. So I would first say, I’m not convinced that actually Vancouver is any harder than any other place to make friends.

I think that may be more a modern condition than something specific to Vancouver. So, so that would be my first response. But I do think, you know, there is a kind of modern condition where people maybe feel more alienated and so forth. And does that express itself on transit? I don’t know. I think I mean, I think overall the transit system, like I said, is a space where people do extend a lot of courtesies to each other.

And that’s one of my goals in interviewing people is understanding how they… do they do they experience that? Do they experience the bus as a place of comfort? How do they navigate it? How did they decide where to sit? Did they give up their seat to others to other people do that for them? Yeah. I mean, I think everyone can have a, have bad experiences on transit, but I think many people have a lot of positive ones as well.

JAWN: One of my favorite experiences on the SkyTrain was during the, the 2010 Winter Olympics, and that was because every single day that I was heading downtown to participate in the festivities, like every 5 minutes on the SkyTrain renditions of ‘O Canada’ would just randomly break out as people were so excited. And all of a sudden those barriers that we deal with every day on the SkyTrain – non-existent every.

[people singing O Canada on the SkyTrain]

JAWN: People were friendly with each other. Even if you were complete strangers. We were all united in this sports and patriotism and this this overwhelming sense of belonging with one another. Does it take special occasions like that for things to kind of go that way? Or in your experience, maybe you were here during the Olympics as well? Like what was your observations like during that period?

DR. HANSER: Yes, I would actually I would echo that, although I wasn’t traveling as far, but I feel like there was a general feeling of, of camaraderie and and, and I definitely remember after the men’s hockey team won the gold medal, everyone pouring into the streets in my neighborhood, and that just effusive excitement. [Excited cheering] But I would say, yes, I think it does require special circumstances for people to feel like this is no longer just an ordinary urban public space, but, so sporting events, the Olympics…

But, you know, often, I think after a sports game or on the way to a sports game, people can be actually much more interactive live on public transit. So, yes, I would say it does actually require those kinds of special events, and I’m not sure we’d want that all the time anyway. Wouldn’t feel special. Right?

JAWN: As Dr. Hanser has explained in great detail, transit isn’t just the journey. It can be a destination in itself, a shared space where we meet and mingle with unwritten social rules guiding how we interact with one another. So, the next time you’re on the bus or you’re on the SkyTrain, maybe you’ll start to notice some of the things we’re talking about here today.

What are the subtle social cues you’re picking up from the other people around you? Who are your ‘secret bus friends” that you might not even know about? And will you strike up a conversation with the operator driving the bus? Who knows? You might make a nice new friend. Now only you can choose for you, but a small gesture can go a very long way.

My thanks to Dr. Amy Hanser for a fascinating chat on this topic. Albert Lao, and all of the fine folks at the Hamilton Transit Centre who let us visit and chat, our colleagues at the Coast Mountain Bus Company for their help in putting this together, and a special thanks to producer Allen for making this all happen behind the scenes, and the entire digital content team at TransLink.

I’ve been your host, Jawn Jang. Don’t forget, you can always leave us an email with your thoughts or comments at any time – you can send us a line at That’s Thanks again for subscribing and until next time, have a safe trip.