Lengths Commuters Go To In Order To Avoid Each Other
August 4, 2012

Lengths Commuters Go To In Order To Avoid Each Other

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

The ONLY empty seat on the bus is next to you. What do you do to deter another passenger from sitting there? The tactics commuters use to avoid each other is published in Symbolic Interaction described as 'nonsocial transient behavior.'

Esther Kim, from Yale University, carried out the study and traveled thousands of miles to examine the behaviors and unspoken rules of commuters.

Kim took coach trips across the United States for over three years. The first trip from Connecticut to New Mexico lasted two days and 17 hours. This was followed by more adventures from Texas to Nevada, Colorado to New York and California to Illinois.

"We live in a world of strangers, where life in public spaces feels increasingly anonymous," said Kim. "However, avoiding other people actually requires quite a lot of effort and this is especially true in confined spaces like public transport."

Kim found that the biggest unspoken rule of bus travel is that you shouldn't sit next to someone else if other seats in the bus are available. As the passengers said, "It makes you look weird".

When all the rows are full and more passengers get on the bus, the seated passengers begin a performance to avert anyone from sitting in the empty seat next to them.

"I became what's known as an experienced traveler and I jotted down many of the different methods people use to avoid sitting next to someone else," said Kim. "We engage in all sorts of behavior to avoid others, pretending to be busy, checking phones, rummaging through bags, looking past people or falling asleep. Sometimes we even don a 'don't bother me face' or what's known as the 'hate stare'."

The best advice from Kim's fellow passengers was:
•    Avoid eye contact with other people
•    Lean against the window and stretch out your legs
•    Place a large bag on the empty seat
•    Sit on the aisle seat and turn on your iPod so you can pretend you can't hear people asking for the window seat.
•    Place several items on the spare seat so it's not worth the passenger's time waiting for you to move them.
•    Look out the window with a blank stare to look crazy
•    Pretend to be asleep
•    Put your coat on the seat to make it appear already taken
•    If all else fails, lie and say the seat has been taken by someone else

"This all changes however when it is announced that the bus will be full so all seats should be made available," Kim observed. "The objective changes, from sitting alone to sitting next to a 'normal' person."

When commuters discovered someone had to sit next them, race, class, gender and other characteristics were not major concerns, Kim determined. Everyone just wanted to stay clear of the 'crazy person.'

"One rider told me the objective is just 'getting through the ride', and that I should avoid fat people who may sweat more and so may be more likely to smell," said Kim. "Motivating this nonsocial behavior is the fact that one's own comfort level is the rider's key concern, rather than the backgrounds of fellow passengers."

Kim found that safety concerns, especially for coach travel which is thought to be dangerous with bus stations that are not well lit, helps drive this nonsocial behavior. Kim also found that passengers expected each other to be exhausted by delays or other inconveniences.

"In a cafe, which is more relaxed, people often ask strangers to watch their stuff for a moment," said Kim. "Yet at bus stations that rarely happens as people assume their fellow passengers will be tired and stressed out."

"Ultimately this nonsocial behavior is due to the many frustrations of sharing a small public space together for a lengthy amount of time," concluded Kim. "Yet this deliberate disengagement is a calculated social action, which is part of a wider culture of social isolation in public spaces."