Category Archives: London

How To Become A Tech Contractor

The end, myths and tips

Here’s my story of becoming a tech contractor in London, followed by myths/truths I found along the way. Your circumstances are different to mine, so your mileage may vary.

I want to put the end at the beginning. I only became a tech contractor because it was the first grift I found where the numbers finally added up.

All my life I’d been contemplating dream jobs based on a few factors, such as: how much I like it, how much I need to train to get a starting salary for it and how good I need to be to get a big salary for it. Until recently all the jobs I’d liked enough to care about failed on one of these factors. Either they were paid very poorly (writing/journalism), or if not require unlikely levels of excellence to be paid well (photography).

But at the age of 29, I contemplated front end web development. Front end web development was something that I liked well enough, was easy to train in, was well paid from the start and due to supply and demand, did not require any excellence to command top salaries. Contracting offered far better salaries than a traditional job, it was more flexible but it also (apparently) had higher risk. The risk/reward ratio was so favourable however that it was a no-brainer for me.

(One week of salary was equivalent to 3 month’s rent & bills)

With numbers like that, I was going to do whatever it took to become one. You should consider whether you feel this way.

Are you kidding yourself

Most people dream of being a contractor the way everyone thinks they want to write a book: it’s not something they’ll ever actually do.

They say that “if only” whatever obstacle wasn’t in their way, then they would be able to do it.

If they actually tried to write a book they would quickly realise they can’t write one. They never will try to write one, because that’s not the point of this dream. The point is to have a fantasy where their lives and themselves are different and better.

Such a fantasy needs some plausible excuses as to why the person isn’t acting to fulfil their dream right now, so the person makes some up. Not enough time, got to pay the mortgage and so on and so on. This excuse shields them from the reality that they could never write a book, because the reality is that being different and better takes a lot of hard work. Much easier to just fantasise.

So too with freelancing. I have heard every excuse under the sun for not yet being a freelancer: lack of experience, mortgage, kids, sick mother, everything. And I have also met successful freelancers with every single one of these burdens that other people use as an excuse. This tendency to make excuses is often a sign that being a freelancer is actually an escape fantasy.

Are you doing that?

If you think maybe you are, congratulations on your self-reflection! You can probably stop reading and maybe enhance your non-contracting life now that you know you’ll never really be one.

If you’re still reading… I’m sure you want to know the details of how to make a go of contracting life. Well I can only tell you what worked for me and it won’t translate to many other kinds of circumstance, but maybe I can help you think about it differently.

Everything you know is wrong

Let’s start big and abstract: everything you think you know about freelancing is wrong.

I’m sure you think your fears, which I have just labelled “excuses” are legitimate worries, but they are the product of a mindset that is ill-matched to the task at hand.

They are ill-matched because you’ve been trained by the “perm” (permanent) world to be fearful about what gets you jobs, because fearful employees are easier to keep in line. You’ve also been dazzled by meaningless rubbish to keep you in your current job, because it’s good to keep a healthy dose of carrot mixed in with the stick.

But that’s what all your knowledge about jobs is: it’s a never-quite-reachable carrot-on-a-stick that is an illusion to keep you under the thumb. None of it is relevant to finding your own work over and over again.

If everything you know about freelancing is wrong, then the details of your fears are wrong too. You should stop worrying about those. You should be way more worried about other things, things you don’t even know yet.

Myths

Let’s look at some things you’ve got wrong, and unseat them.

Myth: “I don’t have enough experience”

Most people think that technical skill level is the biggest factor in becoming a freelancer. Most people think you need lots of experience (coincidentally, it is often about a year more than the person currently has, no matter how long they’ve been a dev or what experience they have).

This is absolutely wrong. You don’t need any experience, and as a freelancer it is by far the smallest factor in becoming successful.

On my journey, I spent 2hrs/day for 1 week on codecademy learning CSS, with my friend answering my questions. Then I spent 4 hrs / day for a second week constructing a website from scratch. It was one that I found that I liked the look of. I built it with almost no peeking, and my friend was still there answering my questions.

On week 3, I was working on my first job as a developer. My friend took the work on and handed it to me so that I could get some experience. I did most of the work, and he checked it over. We split his fee 50/50. The client was Adidas.

I had two weeks of informal part time experience and then I worked for Adidas. Experience is not what matters.

Myth: “Permanent jobs have a lengthy interview process, contracting interviews must be even worse.”

This is wrong. The opposite is true. Hiring managers bizarrely just assume that the recruiter has done a thorough interview process and so they don’t need to. After all, that’s why they’re paying through the nose for a recruiter!

This seems strange at first, because recruiters do not carry out technical interviews with you – they can’t! But they have done something much better.

They have transmitted to you a sense of what all their clients want to see on the cvs of contractors, then you have brushed up and put that very particular thing on your CV, and then they have sent you out to do a quick interpersonal interview to a bunch of clients. Eventually, one of them likes you (often for no good reason) and you’ve been accepted at your first contract.

When your first placement is a week or two in, they sought feedback from the client. Obviously, the client won’t mind trashing a contractor they thought was shit. In fact, they’ll be very honest.

If you don’t get trashed, clearly you have the technical skills! They’ll also hear all about your “fit” in the team as well. Your social skills. So the recruiter listens to all this and sends you in to another client and repeats the process. If you keep getting ok reviews, they’ll keep sending you to places.

This method for placing people in jobs is actually far better than technical interviews, and subconsciously, everyone involved knows it.

Myth: “How much you charge relates to you technical skill level.”

This is wrong. How much you charge relates to how badly the market needs your skills. These are 50% technical and 50% social. Maybe even 40 / 60.

Myth: “The more you charge, the more you are screened in the interview process.”

This is wrong. The opposite is true. The more you charge, the more respect you get and the less they put you through humiliating coding tests and interviews. This is so laughable, but it’s true.

My friend who charges £800/day hasn’t done an interview for years. He also has a great story from back in the days when he was cheaper. He refused to do a coding interview unless they paid him for his time. At first they said that wasn’t possible, and sent him the code test. He never did the test and didn’t send them anything back. A week later they phoned him to offer him the job.

People assume you’re the real thing if you charge high because it’s actually not a bad heuristic. Fakers get found out quite fast and so in fact the people who charge more do send out a true signal that they take themselves seriously, and therefore so do their employers.

It’s perm people who are the chumps that can’t be trusted without interviewing them first.

Tips

Ok, enough myths. I think I made a few wrong turns in those early days, so I’m going to switch to “tips” to highlight what I think is important and what retrospectively I think worked.

The biggest factor in becoming a freelancer is not any of the myths above, it is having the balls to do what it takes.

Risk

You have to take risks. There are some ways to give yourself courage when dealing with risk. As I mentioned above, I simply did some math.  I worked out that for just one week of freelance work could pay my rent for 3 months, if I could keep my costs low enough.

With that kind of math, there was no way I would do anything else but whatever it took. Every time I wobbled and got worried I just remembered the math. I remembered that one hour of looking for freelance work was worth two weeks in a coffee shop job.

I think having a sense of bloody mindedness about the whole thing is important, and I’m not sure taking a frightened, softly softly approach will get you anywhere. At some point you have to go all for it. It’s an emotional commitment. You have to be happy to take the risk, and be able to deal with it.

See the world as it is

An important factor in my story is about noticing imbalances in supply and demand and cost of living versus wages. It’s costly to live in London, but if you win the income game, you can win big. So I pretty much blindly moved to London knowing that anything I did would have a good chance of advancing myself upwards economically.

I fairly quickly realised that basic web development skills can command a salary much higher than other basic skills (admin, coffee making etc) This is simply because the skill is in demand. It is not because the skill is difficult.

Noticing this requires seeing the world in a certain way, in particular understanding how market economics really work. Most people assume “harder” work is better paid, but if you’ve ever been in a caring profession you will know that is not the case.This is true in the reverse direction – well paid work isn’t necessarily hard.

Tech work also has a mystique of “rocket science” around it, implying that the skills are difficult. This is also not true, and I’m not sure how you’d know that was not true. I noticed that the job specifications did NOT always require a computer science degree, so that’s one way.

People often think that they need to be as good as other developers out in the market. This is not the way the world is, the truth is you have to be a better developer than an empty chair. Which is what the company looking to hire currently has available to get their web development work done.

Lie

I think you should lie.

Obviously, having no portfolio or CV in tech is a problem. So I lied. I said I knew javascript when I didn’t because everyone kept asking for it. I took a chance that people didn’t really need it, they just asked for it by rote.

I got a friend to give me a client and the way I presented it, it seemed like they were my client and I had done all the work for it. I knew I had done a significant portion of the work (with help) so I felt ok about it, and I banked on no-one checking too closely or caring that much, and it worked.

Get information

Get information and notice patterns. It’s important to find all the sources of jobs and test out which ones work well for contracting and which ones don’t. Recruitment fairs are bad for contract jobs. Meetups on technical subjects are also bad, although they are good for feeling part of the “scene”. Some websites like o-desk are bad. One website called Work In Startups was ok and I found my very first jobs there.

Ultimately, I found that recruiters are good for contract jobs. Recruiters are a valuable source of information when you are getting started and you are valuable income for them, so it’s mutual, but only if they can place you. Recruiters will ask you a bunch of questions about your experience, address, day rate etc. Don’t be intimidated, recruiters have to deal with people like me who have been in the game for years, we’re fussy and charge a lot. Then there’s newbies with no clue. They need to figure out what kind of person you are and believe me they are good at it. They don’t care which you are, they just need to know so that they can try to place you. So that’s the source of all their questions.

If you talk to enough recruiters they’ll end up asking you for the same things on your CV, and if you don’t have it, you should try to realise what it is they want that’s missing, and get it (or lie about it).

If you notice the patterns, and of course you can just outright ask them, recruiters can tell you how busy/empty the market is, the going rate for each tech skill, the job title the employers are asking for, the location of the jobs and the skills they expect to see on a CV or portfolio. I noticed that everyone was asking for HTML, CSS and JS. I hated JS, found it too hard, and couldn’t do it. But I realised that if I didn’t put it on my CV, no-one would hire me. So I lied and put it on there. I soon started getting interviews (and most of the time I didn’t need js anyway! It was just jargon).

This won’t be the same for other tech stacks. But the technique is the same. I noticed that when my friend who is a Swift developer was on the phone to recruiters they always asked him if he had an app on the App Store. He didn’t, so they were hesitant to offer out his CV to their clients. He needs to work somewhere that has an app on the app store, so he can put it on his CV (or make his own) (or lie).

Don’t Think Like a Perm

A word of warning: my friend above is in a perm job now. Originally it was to get experience on a live app in the app store, but six months in he began gunning for a Senior Developer title. Recently I asked him “why?” He gave me vague answers that involved the words “roadmap” and “experience managing people”. Is this what his contract recruiter kept asking him for? No!

Titles like “senior” are to keep permanent people enthralled, to keep them working in the company. It’s an illusion of advancement that is meaningless. Companies hint that these titles will get you a raise, but believe me it would be a far smaller raise than if you switched jobs to work elsewhere.

It’s far less common to see titles like “Senior” for contractor roles, because the day rate is the true indicator of someone’s skill level. Always be laser focussed on what recruiters/the market really want (or are saying they want).

Make People Love you

If you find people offering work, you have to be attractive to them. Find out what they like.

I get my work through contract recruiters. Recruiters love two things: LinkedIn and Being On The Phone.

They are sales people, they need to make quick deals (especially short term contract work) with reliable people. Always, always, always answer your phone. I hate talking on the phone, but I learned that I had to do what it takes, and using the phone is what gets me jobs.

They also need to “sell” you to their idiot clients. They need a flashy portfolio, a filled out LinkedIn and a buzz-word heavy CV to send to their clients. The hiring manager and the recruiter themselves are unlikely to be techy, so just fill in all the words and wait until the interview to see if the job really needs the skills they say it does.

At the interview, there is almost nothing you can do to make people love you. It will be pure chance at first. Since it is pure chance, you simply need volume. Be persistent. Keeping going to recruiters. Keep going to interviews.  I’m pretty sure I got my first ever contract that was through a recruiter because in the interview the lead designer saw I had hairy legs and felt I was a kindred spirit. You never know what’s going to finally crack the nut, so just keep hammering it.

One Last Story

One last story about figuring out what you really need to do, rather than what you assume you need to do:

My website was hand-coded (and designed) by me when I first started out. Years later, I looked through my bank statements one day and I noticed a trend. Lots of small amounts were going out, nothing going in. The occasional £500 for some pitiful two days of work at a shitty startup.

Then a small fee for “theme forest” went out (a website that sells pre-designed and coded website templates). I had bought an attractive theme for my website that I didn’t code myself.

The very next entries were a series of £1,500 being paid in. Loads of them. That theme helped me to get a long contract with a real company.

I call this “Chefs don’t cook at home” – you don’t have to code your own website. You DO have to look good to a non-technical person.

Everything’s Going To Be Ok

So stop whining and just do it.

Not A Meritocracy

Social Justice

So, I’m done with the social justice world.

I always had more time for the really complex and nuanced arguments of the heavyweight writers anyway and I had the privilege of working with smart and level-headed activists when it came to actions.

But, in the last few years I lost my certainty about every cause I was involved with and now I feel much more interested in studying all sides, watching how things play out and to a certain extent having a go at predicting outcomes, without feeling particular alleigence to any “side” in a debate because almost everything has merit and almost no-one is interested in measuring actual outcomes. When outcomes are played out, things are normally good for some people and bad for others, appropriate in some circumstances and irrelevant in others.

Im interested in that fact, but openly sympathising with the problems faced by men’s rights activists gets you pushed out of the feminist activist club fairly quickly, and rightly so, because passionate outrage is the fuel needed to act there.

Anyway, excellent activism is more drowned out these days by tribe-signalling meme warfare and I generally ignore it.

But I still have thoughts and critiques when particular examples float my way and here is one of them.

Intro

A friend invited me to a talk by a woman of color about the difficulties she has experienced in the media industry. It set me to thinking about the media industry and how this is a known industry for being extremely difficult to get into. It also strikes me that the media industry is one of those industries that is most obviously based on nepotism (powerful people promoting their friends) than based on merit (fair interview processes for all job openings).

In this talk I wonder if the person will be calling for less racism in a meritocratic sense or in a personal relations sense.

Systematic lies

I certainly used to be a highly systematic and individual person who believed in rules and fairness. My understanding of feminism moved through the following cycle:

Believing that the world was fair to the genders -> angrily realising it was not -> advocating for more fairness ->seriously thinking about how to educate others to be fair -> realising you partly have to tell the next generation to behave better than you do ->telling kids that the world already allows boys in pink skirts ->those kids believe the world is fair ->angry realisation that it’s not…. etc.

In this way we are iterating over the generations since the 60s telling little lies that everything is fair.

Relationships

I recently spent some time working on my skills when it comes to relationships, being dissolved in a web of humans, forgetting the rules and so on.

A pertinent example of this is moving to London. I had always been too scared to move to London since the barriers to entry are so formidable. When I decided to make the move, I had no money, no previous address and no (current) skills. I knew that the “correct” way to move to London, use an agency to rent a property at market rates, would be impossible for me. I knew it was impossible for others too, and yet people managed to get there. It seemed obvious that it was important to meet some people who had found some sweet deal, some cheaper niche of their own, by luck and rule-bending and circumstance. It was important to personally meet these people because any spare rooms would be a closely guarded secret that would never leak out onto “official” channels, reserved only for friends by word of mouth. This strategy would take time and luck, but was my only way in.

It worked, and that is exactly how I moved to London.

This is nepotism, the epitome of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. The catch-22 of “networking” is that human networks is one of the only ways things get done but articifially trying to build those networks at networking sessions is exactly the wrong way to forge those connections. It must be done in a way that feels natural and inspires trust.

More Lies

Back to lies we tell our kids. Adults claim that their institutions are based on a meritocracy, which is not really the truth. There is a sliding scale of truth to that claim, with most universities and boring companies on the meritocratic end and Oxbridge, government and the arts industries on the nepotism end.

When I was a feminist activist, I took fair, meritocratic systems as a given and was trying to eliminate unfair practices between genders in what I perceived should be a fair system.

I wonder if this woman of color is making the same assumption: that unfair racist practices are occuring in what should be a fair, meritocratic system. If so, I don’t think she will get very far. Not because of the resistence to equal treatment of race and gender (though that is likely present), but because protecting the facade of merit over the reality of nepotism is something people will fiercely defend and lie about (and do it well, this is the media we are talking about).

My advice to this woman would be to use race and gender as a tool in this nepotistic setup. Go find the people of color who are already there and if they won’t help you (likely) they might indicate who in power likes having black friends. Gender is an even more unpalatable option, since other women may not help (they might, find that one feminist who works in TV), so one might have to resort to feminine attractiveness or, more likely if its TV and theatre, one could do well by butching up for all the gay guys that find women a bit scary.

This all sounds like a social justice nightmare, but if you’re not willing to be realistic about these strategies a career in the media may not be for you. It also does not preclude activism. Someone’s personal climb through the nepotisitc ranks may lead those friends on the way up to regard a person of a colour as a good bet in the relations stakes, whereas before they were prejudiced/ blind to it. I genuinely believe that that outcome would be a big win that does a lot of good.

Support

I won’t be going to the talk. I’m bored with all that. My advice above would not be taken well, and I can see why. But my friend is definitely showing signs that she takes my lack of support for her talks as a rejection of her friendship. Is it possible to show support for someone in this part of their life without resorting to totally faking it?

Britain’s unequal cities and the magnetic force of London’s social norms

EDIT: Please note that the philosophy portions of my blog can now be found at TheoryEngine.org

City Size and Stability

An acquaintance once told me that Germany experiences political stability in part due to the fact that all of its cities are roughly of equal size. I have no way to validate this claim, but Germany’s cities do seem to be noticeably uniform in their population and population density after the top 4. Among the top 4, the largest city, the capital, is double the size of the next largest, while 2,3 and 4 are similar in size to each other.

At some point I became aware of Britain’s “top ten” city sizes and this is the kind of information that my brain likes to keep around. I lived in rank number 8 at the time: Bristol, and now I live in number 1: London.

What is interesting about the U.K.’s city sizes is that the capital, London, is four times larger than the next contender: 8.3 million vs. 2.3 million in Birmingham. After that the city sizes decrease sharply among the top ten. Manchester is 1.7 million, Liverpool 0.8 and so on. My home city of Bristol in rank 8 is only 0.4 and these numbers include a “greater urban area” so they are on the generous side.

This interesting table also lists the “Large Urban Zone” EU rank of these areas. London is number 1, while the next largest area, Birmingham, is rank 21.

On hearing my friend’s anecdote about political stability in Germany, I started to wonder if regions with unequal size cities have more social/political upheaval or strife.

It is sort of common knowledge in the U.K. that London dominates the political and financial landscape of the country, meaning that politicians are unduly influenced by the needs of London and are liable to ignore the needs of the rest of the population. But aside from politicians wearing London-tinted glasses, are there other mechanisms also in play?

Advertising as Signalling

This interesting article about advertising proposes a mechanism for how advertising works. Its thesis is that adverts probably do not overtly or covertly make a consumer have emotions related to a product (“emotional inception”), rather they create a shared social environment where the product is associated with a sign or signal of certain social messages. I recommend reading the article for specific examples, such as Corona being associated with being chill on the beach, so that’s the beer you’ll bring to the barbeque to signal “we are all chill here”.

The article stresses the fact that advertising has to create a potent and enduring social milieu within which to present a consistent social message. This milieu only works if everyone has seen the message, and everyone knows that everyone else has seen the message. Thus, signalling by means of products can begin.

London’s Impact on Advertising

London’s supermassive size has the effect of pulling everything into its orbit. If a company would like to use some kind of creative agency to make an advert, the people they call will be in London.

Now that I’ve lived in London for a while, I noticed that much of UK-produced media is made by people who live in London, using London locations. I recently watched an advert that showed a variety of people in a variety of settings. The urban scenes were in different parts of London with different types of background architecture, but the “rural” or “park” scenes were also in London – the hexagonal black bins and other street furniture were instantly recognisable.

Clearly some London agency had taken the client’s money and shot a “diverse” advert with diverse locations without going any further than Hampstead Heath.

London’s Social Norms

Crucially, I recently noticed that London people also project London social values in their output. The advert mentioned above was quite diverse in terms of the people in the advert: a white same sex couple, an older sikh gentleman jogging, a black family. The ad was trying so hard it was almost painful.

However, for a Londoner, a same sex couple in Trafalgar square, a black family on an urban road and an older sikh man jogging in Hampstead Heath is just normal life. The hammy diversity is only hammy for a Londoner because of trying to jam in different examples of normal people into a short time frame.

The advert lacked poor people, because no-one is very poor in London. London takes racial diversity for granted, as well as sexuality. Engagement in a capitalist economy is also taken for granted in London, because everyone is there to make money, and everyone is succeeding in that. Making money is not inherently bad, since it supports taxes which in turn support infrastructure which supports making more money.

London is ethnically very diverse. London is 49% white British, 58% white (all groups). 37% of London residents were born outside of the UK. This compares to 95% white in the rest of the UK population.

Being a diverse mega-city, politeness in London is an interesting game. There is no way to know which custom should take precedent among diverse people. For example, getting on the bus politely. Whom should you defer to when entering the vehicle? Older people? Women? Men? Children? It amuses me to think that even in say, patriarchal cultures there is no consistency. One culture might deem that women should go first, while another says that women should be at the back of the queue. Most people will defer to elders, but tellingly, only if they have their shit together to board. This shows London’s default social norm: efficiency and speed (which = money).

The only way to keep this city going is with speed and efficiency. If an older person is faffing, it is culturally polite in London to get on before that person, because in the time we’ve wasted deferring to our elders, ten people could have boarded the bus and we’d be underway.

The older person is never left behind, because Londoners are also culturally aware that each person adds more wealth to the whole. This wealth is both cultural and fiscal at the same time. London is so big that it has (paid) roles and niches for absolutely everyone. London understands that diversity is good, not through strength, but through money.

Social Pressure

And these are the values that are translated into advertising. These values make sense in London, but for the rest of the population, which is 95% white, with no financial incentives, they may be having a very negative effect.

If advertising creates a social signalling environment, then a person in a small town or village is being forced to feel that they should welcome and tolerate people who, for them, display disruptive, frightening and dangerous characteristics.

When someone from another culture shows up in a small(ish) community, it is probably better for everyone involved if that person is integrated into community life, ie they are asked to change their behaviours to match their new surroundings (and a link to this idea now eludes me).

However, the opposite message is being broadcast by London-based advertising producers. Cultures should apparently be tolerated and celebrated, not integrated and if a local person thinks that the new person should be restricted or compelled to integrate, they are made to feel racist.

If advertising sets the tone of social interaction, a large part of the UK population is being made to feel social shame. Shame often leads to anger and defiance. Perhaps it has led to backlash voting.

I’m not sure if unequal city sizes generally contributes to social tension rather than harmony, but the mechanism described above could be one more explanation for London’s black hole effect on the rest of the U.K.

London Transport

Londoners are famous to anyone outside of London for their thousand yard stare, their seeming indifference to all things involving social interaction and their stressed-out attitude. Everyone is in a desperate rush to get where they’re going and they’ll ignore everyone else as much as possible.

A Note On The Tube

Most of these observations are made by people who don’t live in London when they happen to interact with Londoners, which almost exclusively occurs on the Tube. Moreover, it is on the tube at Oxford Circus on the weekend, or central London in the rush hour. Such conditions are going to be a challenge for even the most kind-spirited individual, but even under these conditions I think Londoners are wholly underrated for their good wishes towards their fellow humans and London social norms are entirely misunderstood.

First of all, Londoners do make eye contact and even talk to each other on the Tube. It is a slow process, and requires the circumstances to be correct so that each party can be fairly sure that the other one is reasonably sane and actually desires to interact. This involves gradual increase of eye contact and something external upon which to comment.  Londoners don’t talk to non-Londoners on the Tube because non-Londoners don’t realise that refusing to make eye contact means “leave me alone”. In a city that screams for your attention every second and from every surface it is the height of politeness to leave everyone else around you their own personal space. This ‘personal space’ is an interactive space, or a communication space. Londoners deal better than anyone with a lack of <i>physical</i> personal space, as the rush hour Tube will testify. It is the demands on one’s attention that Londoner’s are sensitive to, since we are all trying to shield ourselves from the constant communication we are in with the city itself. As a result, demanding another Londoner’s attention is a matter of delicate etiquette. Any non-Londoner trying to make conversation with the entire Tube carriage has severely trampled that etiquette and will be met with cold shoulders and averted eyes, even if some of the people were inclined to talk.

In addition, the transport systems are incredibly busy. It is a simple fact that every seat on your vehicle will be taken, and many might be standing too. Now, no-one wants to have to sit next to a nutter. In other cities I’ve heard talk about how to make yourself look unwelcoming so that no-one sits next to you on the bus. Not so, London. London life obliges us to sit cheek-by-jowl during every journey we make. As a result, the social etiquette of *not* talking to the people next to you has evolved so that we can all get along, none of us makes the others uncomfortable and we can all get where we’re going unharmed.

This etiquette has evolved out of necessity however I believe it is a testament to humans overcoming their tribal, in-group/out-group tendencies – something which is extremely hard to do. The complaint is still raised that this system isn’t very happy because it essentially leads to everyone ignoring each other but frankly the “let’s chat on the bus” way of doing things has the unacknowledged downside that people also feel free to be openly hostile to each other. In London, I have yet to observe anyone so much as raising their voice on a bus or a tube, let alone have a fight. In a city of 7 million people teeming all over the transport system, this is nothing short of a miracle.

A Note on London Bus Drivers

London bus drivers are the friendliest bus drivers I’ve ever come across, and there is really no need for them to be. If someone’s Oyster card is not working, they let the person on for free. If they see someone running for the bus, even though there is guaranteed to be another bus coming along in 8 minutes or less, be it day or night, the driver still holds the bus to allow them to get on. Pedestrians, cyclists and drivers alike are awful road users around London buses, seeming to have suicidal tendencies, but bus drivers never get angry. Why should this be so? I have no idea, but it is.

A Note On London Cycling and Taxi Drivers

I always try to cycle within the Highway Code and in such a way that another road user will not be freaked out by my behaviour. I love to cycle in Central London and have not once had a near miss. The first time I was beeped by a taxi driver, I was quite upset. However I quickly realised that, like most other communication in London, it was by no means a personal slur and oddly also complied with the Highway Code. London taxis use a very short beep to signal their impatience. Beeping the horn in the Highway Code simply means “Warning – I am here” and this is pretty much what a London cabbie means when he beeps you. It means, “we’re all busy trying to get somewhere, you are in the way, warning – I am here and I’m about to swerve around you.”

I find road use can feel relatively safe if the vehicles around you have predictable behaviours. Luckily, London taxis are fairly predictable, in that they want to be away from you, and fast. I often move to the centre of my lane if overtaking me at that moment would be a bad idea, and move far left if there is a good spot to overtake me (given oncoming traffic). Since knowing what I know about taxi drivers, I seem to have good interactions with them. They appreciate that I mostly try to get the hell out of the way, and give me space when it’s impossible to overtake anyway. These days, I only get beeped at when I probably am in the wrong.

A Note On Standing On The Right

It may seem harsh at first, but it is the simplest, easiest and oh-so effective rule which enables everyone to move around this town at their chosen speed. I am fully behind it as a rule. Don’t make excuses, just stand on the right.