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Study: Commuters Go To Great Lengths To Avoid Contact With Fellow Passengers

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Bus riders use a series of sly tactics in order to avoid social interaction on public transportation. (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)

Bus riders use a series of sly tactics in order to avoid social interaction on public transportation. (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)

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(CBS Las Vegas) – Public transportation patrons have established an implicit commuter constitution of rules: Don’t sit next to someone unless the bus is completely filled. Avoid eye contact at all costs. Pretend to be asleep or staring out the window to avoid giving your seat up.

These are just some of the neurotic tactics explored in Yale sociologist Esther C. Kim’s recent study, “Nonsocial Transient Behavior: Social Disengagement on the Greyhound Bus,” published in the science journal, Symbolic Interaction.

Kim’s research was carried out over three years as she took trips across the United States – between Connecticut and New Mexico, California to Illinois, Colorado to New York, and Texas to Nevada – examining social behavior of people in confined travel spaces.

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

Kim examined the great lengths that commuters would go to in order to avoid any type of contact with fellow passengers. Many passengers were very forthcoming about their surreptitious schemes to maintain their private space. Many people admitted to an extensive list of tactics to keep others away:

- Lean against a window and stretch out your legs

- Placing a large back on the adjacent empty seat

- Turning on an iPod in the aisle seat in order to avoid giving up the window seat

- And if all else fails: lie and say that the seat is taken by someone else.

Kim’s findings state that the greatest unspoken rule of bus travel is that if other space is available you should never sit next to someone else. “It makes you look weird,” said one bus rider. And to many riders, even when the dreaded announcement came that the bus was filled and all seats need to be available – the objective simply changed from sitting alone to sitting next to a “normal” person. Kim found that class, gender and race were not key concerns, but instead it was simply to avoid the “crazy person” on the bus.

“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,” Kim stated in the science journal, Symbolic Interaction. “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.”

This nonsocial behavior is connected to safety concerns ranging in fears of germs, potential violence from others, and preconceptions many hold about the dangers of coach travel.

“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 in the study. “Yet this deliberate disengagement is a calculated social action, which is part of a wider culture of social isolation in public spaces.”

-Benjamin Fearnow

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