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PUBLICATIONS, Structural and Cohesion Policies

Can I sit next to you, girl?


A new study reveals the tactics commuters use to avoid each other, a practice known as ‘nonsocial transient behavior.’How do you choose your place on a bus, plane or train? Do you like sitting alone? Or, do you place your bag on the empty seat next to you? How do you avoid a big person from taking the seat next to you? Why do so many people sit on the aisle seat, leaving the window seat unoccupied?

A game of chess

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

“We live in a world of strangers, where life in public spaces feels increasingly anonymous,” according to 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 greatest unspoken rule of bus travel is that if other seats are available you shouldn’t sit next to someone else. As the passengers claimed, “It makes you look weird.” When all the rows are filled and more passengers are getting aboard the seated passengers initiate a performance to strategically avoid anyone sitting next to them. They engage in all sorts of behavior to avoid others, pretending to be busy, checking phones, rummaging through bags, looking past people or falling asleep.

Normal person

This all changes however when it becomes clear the bus will be full so all seats should be made available. The objective changes, from sitting alone to sitting next to a ‘normal’ person. And normal means “someone who doesn’t look crazy, will not talk much and probably will not smell, and preferably has attractive looks (Yes, AC/DC!).”

Culture of social isolation

According to the research race, class, gender and other background characteristics were not key concerns for commuters when they discovered someone had to sit next to them. They all just wanted to avoid the “crazy person.

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 this nonsocial behavior is also driven by safety concerns, especially for coach travel which is perceived to be dangerous with ill lit bus stations. Kim also found that passengers expected each other to be jaded by delays or other inconveniences.

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

Original article: Kim, E. C. (2012), Nonsocial Transient Behavior: Social Disengagement on the Greyhound Bus. Symbolic Interaction. doi: 10.1002/symb.21

Other blog posts on public transport:

Free public transport in Europe

Getting paid when travelling outside rush hour!

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