Seat’s Taken! A Study of Antisocial Traveler Behavior

A researcher spent two years crisscrossing the country by bus cataloging all the ways we try to prevent strangers from sitting next to us

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Remember the last time you got on a train, only to find all the seats occupied by people … and their bags? Boy, bags really do like aisle seats, you may have said to yourself. Or maybe you just shook your head and moved on to the next car, annoyed by the passive-aggressiveness of it all: “Seat’s taken!” the bags scream in silence, while their owners turn and stare out the windows.

You might deplore such behavior when you’re the one schlepping down the aisle in search of an open seat, but admit it, you’re probably guilty of piling your suitcase next to you too, when you’re the first on board. So why do we do it?

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That’s the question Yale University doctoral student Esther C. Kim explored in a new study published in the journal Symbolic Interaction. The bag-in-seat move is just one among a collection of similar strategies she observed, which she calls “nonsocial transient behavior.” In less academic terms, they’re tactics people use while traveling in an attempt to keep strangers at arm’s length, or farther away.

Kim cataloged these various habits over two years of research. Like any good ethnographer, she lived the life of her study subjects, taking multiple cross-country bus rides — from Connecticut to New Mexico, a trip that took two days and 17 hours; California to Illinois; Colorado to New York; Texas to Nevada. She spent hours stuck in dingy terminals, used rusty washrooms and took notes on the sly, watching people through the slit between bus seats to collect her data. (Not since Menelaus pursued his Helen has one showed such commitment to a cause.)

In the resulting paper, Kim lays out the hows and whys of nonsocial transient behavior, but first, she differentiates it from previous and seemingly comparable concepts like civil inattention, i.e., when strangers in close proximity try to respectfully keep their distance. Civil inattention drives phenomena like “elevator osmosis,” for example: if there are four people in a car, they will politely arrange themselves in a square, without coordination or eye contact. As people get off, the square becomes a triangle, then the triangle become a hypotenuse, each remaining passenger reshuffling to provide maximum space and privacy for the others.

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With nonsocial transient behavior, however, “respect is not a concern,” Kim writes. It’s not about affording other people the courtesy of elbow room; instead, it’s telling your neighbors “overtly not to step into [your] territory.” It is a performance, Kim says, and not a civil one.

The basic rules of bus travel help set this more antagonistic scene: as Kim discovered, every row must be occupied before you sit next to someone. Anyone who defies this rule is considered a “weirdo.” If it is announced that the bus will be full and that all seats must be made available, then the goal shifts and becomes sitting next to a “normal” person. Normal, according to one bus traveler, “means someone who ‘doesn’t look crazy,’ will not talk much, and probably will not smell bad.” The assumption, Kim explains, “is that sitting next to a ‘normal’ person who is not ‘crazy’ helps to avoid discomfort.”

Avoiding discomfort, whether physical or mental, is why people go to such lengths to protect their space. Kim spoke with an “experienced rider” named Loretta about how she kept potential encroachers from invading the seat next-door. Her tactics included avoiding eye contact; stretching her legs onto the neighboring seat; sitting in the aisle seat, blasting her iPod and pretending not to hear people asking for the window seat; placing many small items on the other seat so it was clearly “not worth their time” for passengers to wait for Loretta to clear it; pretending to sleep; and looking out the window with an off-putting “blank stare.” A more direct method, though questionable given certain chapters in Greyhound’s history, is using the don’t-mess-with-me look, or the “hate stare.” Kim tried many of these methods herself and said she found them “quite effective.”

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These peevish schemes are particular to travelers, Kim found. You wouldn’t find the same behavior, say, at a cafe. There are three main reasons, Kim says, that travelers tend to be so antisocial: uncertainty about strangers (other travelers might be “crazies” or be out to steal your stuff); aggravation over the lack of privacy or absence of personal space; and exhaustion. Travelers may be tired, stressed out and jaded by the vagaries of long-distance trips, and usually, they expect other passengers to be too.

Nonsocial transient behavior is really all about increasing one’s own comfort, however; it has little to do with considerations for others — for instance, assuming other travelers are tired and would prefer not to be bothered. For the most part, Kim writes, “As strangers on the bus, individuals have no incentive to invest their time or energy in others.”

Kim’s findings are specific to her experiences riding cross-country buses — those long, confined journeys that make people particularly moody and frustrated — but anyone who has even gone three stops on the subway or city bus will have experienced the same sad kind of self-preservation. People also do it in shuttles from city centers to the airport or on airlines like Southwest where seats are first-come-first-served.

There isn’t much we can do about a fairly natural reaction. “Confinement in a small spaces without privacy,” Kim explains, simply causes “people to actively disengage.” But at the very least, perhaps you can actively disengage your bags from the aisle seat.