The Hard Facts: Don’t Stand So Close To Me

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“Commuters often go to great lengths to close themselves off to strangers while traveling and now a Yale researcher has documented some of these antisocial tactics. … The most sacred rule, she found, was that sitting down next to someone when there are rows of open seats makes you look like a ‘weirdo.’ But these rules change when passengers know the bus will be full and they will have to sit next to someone, [study author Esther] Kim found. ‘The objective changes, from sitting alone to sitting next to a ‘normal’ person,’ she explained in a statement.” (“Study Reveals How Commuters Avoid Each Other” LiveScience.com. August 1, 2012)

When people ask me if I’ve changed since I started my year of friending, I often use my behavior on an airplane as an example. “Before I did my year, I was that girl who put on her headphones and stuck her nose in a book the minute she sat down on an airplane,” I explain. “Now I look around, make eye contact, smile at people.”

Notice I don’t say “Now I sidle up to my neighbor and chat for the whole flight whether she likes it or not.”

There is a fine line between being friendly and being intense, and I aim for the former.

Similar rules apply to other forms of public transportation. The unwritten rules that Esther Kim refers to above are spot on. It’s not about friendliness so much as it is about personal space. If I’m on a bus or a train, I don’t sit next to someone when there are empty seats. But I don’t consider this being antisocial, I think of it as being respectful of a person’s area. Take last weekend. I was in Las Vegas, and the drunk woman next to me kept pulling up close to me with her chair and whispering in my ear with her hot drunk breath. Ugh. That’s not friendly, that’s having no concept of boundaries.

But even when I’m on a bus or a train, I try to develop an unspoken camaraderie with my nearby passengers. I like to establish myself as friendly early on so that if the occasion arises for us to chat, we will. I also like being polite so that when I inevitably ask to borrow a pen or what time it is, people will respond kindly. Basically, the message I go for is sort of “We could be friends” rather than the super-aggressive “We will be friends.”

What do you think about the unwritten rules of public transportation as Esther Kim outlines them above? Do you agree? (It goes without saying that ‘normal’ is a subjective term.) Ever had to deal with someone who didn’t abide?

22 Comments

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22 responses to “The Hard Facts: Don’t Stand So Close To Me

  1. I always try to be open with people on trains etc. And I’m so glad I do because I’ve met some of the most extraordinary people that way. People that have invented plastics, been in films, have pet llamas, whose parents are nobility etc.

    Makes you realise everyone has a story to tell if you dig a little🙂

    But genau, you have to give people their space. What I find amusing when 2 people on the train obviously want to strike up a conversation, but neither wants to be the first to start, in case they become the weirdo! Like a game of Stranger Chicken!

    • Reminds me of a time on a crowded train leaving London. We were exhausted after a day of touring and were riding back to the quaint ‘burb where our B&B was. Our sleeping 2nd grader was crashed out across our laps. There was one empty seat next to Mike, I had the windows. The fellow that took the seat was chatty, which normally I like when traveling. I enjoy meeting the locals and have learned of many interesting places to go or see from chatting like this with locals. However when he got to telling us how he was traveling home from getting out of prison after spending 15 years in there for a murder – We really wished the happy now free chatty bloke hadn’t sat down with us and longed for the crazy looking possible cat lady that had eyed the seat then passed.

  2. OMG I am so glad you wrote this! My Thesis is on Public transportation and how to apply different strategies to make transportation more attractive to patrons! If you have any more information like this and would not mind sharing it, i would LOVE IT! 🙂

  3. Reblogged this on Faces of Urban Regional Planning and Design and commented:
    I could not say this any better than MWF has.

  4. I’m not on public transpo very much, but now and then I’ll take the initiative to strike up funny conversation with people if I’m waiting in line, etc. Especially if it’s, say, a mom with a child close in age to mine, and my son is with me too. Maybe I’m weird, but if the people near me are talking loudly enough that I could theoretically be included in the conversation, but they are pretending that I’m not even there, I will occasionally add a little remark & see what happens. Mostly in a “you got that right!” kind of way. Most people respond, and are warmly surprised and start chatting, but if they seem freaked out, I just shut up after that one attempt.🙂

  5. Reminds me of a couple times flying when no one spoke and I wanted to chat so badly! I did the smile and look at people thing but to no avail. Maybe next time.

  6. Two unwelcome lines I often heard from inquiring strangers when I rode city transportation:

    “Can I get yur digits?”
    and
    “Have you accepted Jesus?”

  7. Anon

    I live in a large metropolitan city and don’t drive and have relied on public tranportation my whole life. I have had a wide range of good and bad experiences on pubic transpo. Generally, people who strike up conversations with strangers here are considered “weirdos” but depending on the specific location in the city, it can be seen as warm and friendly. Tourists in the downtown area definitely attract more random conversations when they ask for directions or good sightseeing spots. At other times, I have seen muggings, pickpockets, and on one occasion, a man sat next to me on a near empy train (which I immediately thought strange) and my gut feeling served me right because he inappropriately exposed himself to me. I think when taking public transpo in an urban area, you just have to keep your eyes open and put on a street smarts hat.

    This topic has been on my mind lately, and sorry to digress here, but how does anyone have any advice on handling boundaries at work. A co-worker of mine is extremely friendly and can come off as aggressive. I am not interested in being friends with her for various reasons so I don’t usually go beyond “hello, good morning” but she doesn’t get the hint. I have been trying to disengage her for 6 months now.

  8. Gretchen

    I traveled to my job in NYC for four years using commuter rail and the subway and I can definitely say this was the case. The train into Manhattan was always completely full, so the empty seat rule didn’t really apply at peak hours, but I always sought out sitting next to someone “normal” preferably another 20-30 something woman like. There were definitely unwritten rules that the regular commuters followed and it was irritating when a non-regular disrupted things. The morning ride in was almost always silent despite the fact there were 200 people in each car. I did strike up a few conversations with people next to me, some of whom were very interesting! I wish i had done it more. For instance there was a girl I saw on the platform every morning that looked cool and clearly had the same commute as me, but I never had the guts to say hello. Now as a commuter in Chicago, I often see people on the bus that look like fun friendly people. I usually sit next to them as opposed to the weirdos, but I never have the guts to say hello. Especially because people are so often buried in their phones or have headphones jammed in their ears.

  9. Some of my closest friends from my youth were other high school kids I met on the bus. I went to a private school, but the public bus I rode was also perfect for a couple of local public schools. At the end of the long (usually dramatic) day, it was so nice to see these friends who weren’t involved in the gossip and pettiness at my school. We could speak freely about neutral subjects, and we were familiar with some of the other riders, and sometimes we had to look out for each other when a regular, scary guy was looking as if he were about to do or say something threatening. We had each others’ backs. Not going to the same school seemed to be a plus. We related on more general subjects- being teens in the city.

  10. ChelseaO

    This is so true! I had to rely on public transit to get into the city (Chicago) for a 6 week training for work. On my way into the city I would always end up with someone next to me, usually a business suit type, that would immediately open his paper and not say a word. Then on the commute home I would always end up with the chatty Kathy next to me who wanted to know anything and everything about my job. To be honest I think it is mostly because people who commute regularly on public transit try to find the most normal looking person to sit next to if they know it’s going to be a full train. Plus people are much more open to talking once they’re awake on the way home versus first thing in the morning on the way in.

    But one thing that is great about public transit is that I asked a fellow trainee about how the “L” (subway) works and she showed me and we ended up becoming good friends in the end! So public transit is an interesting topic with people, great post Rachel!

  11. Very interesting and fun, I rode the subway in DC for 20 years and the rules always seem to be there. I am surprised, thinking back, about how quiet folks were on in am commute, compared to the noise during the afternoon commute. I would have thought it would be the opposite, with the fresh just up folks being full of themselves in the am. Oh well, there I go thinking in hindsight again. — Bill

  12. Such interesting statistics. Oh, the politics of public transport! For me, it’s incessant staring from the passengers opposite that gets me going. I really don’t stand out from the crowd, but sometimes the person opposite can’t seem to click out of staring into middle distance – ie, at my face. I give them a little wave if it gets too much for me!
    Take care, Bridget

  13. Erica

    The same thing can be said about traveling in an elevator. It’s so annoying when someone saddles up beside you when there’s ample space in the elevator. I have had people stand right next to me when it’s just the two of us in the elevator, and it’s creepy!

  14. Not on transportation, but I’ve had someone come sit next to me in a movie theater that was completely empty except for my friends and me. I moved away because it was so obnoxious to me. This was years ago and I still wonder why the person sat there!

    Great post🙂

  15. It’s really interesting when you go to different countries and see how the ‘personal space’ law doesn’t apply. In Italy, grown men run to each other hugging and kissing on each cheek. All over Europe are restaurants where the dining is just long tables-perfect strangers sit at tables together. If the chair is empty, why not sit at it? Many greetings (among family or the newly introduced) consist of kisses, on each cheek, sometimes up to three times. In America: we prefer to stand at a certain distance extend our arms and shake hands, we don’t think twice if one person is at a table full of chairs, and two men would never greet each other like the Italians, if only friends. Sometimes, I watch these European or South American cultures and envy their ability to be physically close. It’s a simple difference between cultures.

  16. PureSnickety

    Personal space has always been sacred to me. Maybe it comes from having an abusive older sibling who never respected mine. Maybe it is just part of my normal personality.

    I smile and make eye contact. The message I send is, “I am a kind and respectful person who you can have a nice chat with, but I don’t expect you to be my best buddy just because we happen to be in the same place at the same time.”

    Wow! I guess my personal “message” is a but long😉.

    Sally
    http://puresnickety.com

  17. I totally feel this! I live in New York and travel more or less exclusively by subway, and I often find, when I’m on the subway with other people, that it’s weird and uncomfortable. I’m so used to shutting myself completely off in this difficult-to-describe way. Having to interact with the people I know and still have the shut-off thing with the other subway passengers is difficult and weird.

  18. Totally agree! It’s an unspoken rule in a lot of places. I find busses and elevators to be this way in particular. I like the way you approach things though – establish yourself as friendly, so we COULD have a conversation if it happens to come about, but we don’t HAVE to. We can sit in comfortable and amiable silence.
    I wrote my thoughts about elevator rides a few weeks ago:
    http://freezinwinnipeg.wordpress.com/2012/05/30/an-unfriendly-ride/
    Thanks for expressing this so well!

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